TUCSON – Let’s be honest: Every baseball game against No. 8 Arizona is going to be a struggle this season for Arizona State.
The Wildcats lead the Pac-12 in hitting, with a team average of .328 going into Tuesday. ASU is last in the conference in pitching with a collective 5.35 earned run average before the first of five rivalry games at Hi Corbett Field.
Not to mention that the Sun Devils are young, starting three freshmen, and the Wildcats are still loaded with position player talent from their 2016 College World Series runner-up team.
The matchup isn’t a good one on paper and wasn’t on the field in the first go-round. UA put up five runs in the first three innings off Jake Godfrey (2-2) on the way to an 11-2 non-conference victory before a UA season-high 4,644 fans.
The second non-conference game is May 9 in Tucson, with the Pac-12 series May 18-20 at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The Territorial Cup Series baseball point, which ASU has won the last two years, is based on all five games.
ASU dropped to 12-15 ahead of an away series at California (12-14, 4-5 Pac-12). With half a season remaining (28 games), the Sun Devils must go 18-10 to extend their nation-leading streak of 30-win seasons to 55 years.
Last season, ASU came on during Pac-12 play to win 34 games in the regular season and make the NCAA Tournament. But the Sun Devils already are 2-7 in conference and showing no signs of this being anything other than a learning experience for its highly ranked freshman class.
Coach Tracy Smith, in his third season at ASU, had a long meeting with his players after the loss.
“It’s totally unacceptable,” Smith said. “We’re not putting forth a fully committed effort. That’s what we’re going to be looking at, to play the game the right way and start there.”
Smith said he considered starting Spencer Van Scoyoc or even No. 1 weekend starer Eli Lingos against UA, but both were unavailable due to medical issues.
“We’re not getting it done on the mound,” said Smith, also serving as pitching coach this season. “If you lay out the formula of what we’re doing, it’s almost impossible to get a win. You can’t have that many walks and hit guys and expect to win a game. That piece has to change.
“The only way to turn this around if is everybody pulls together and not apart. We’ve got some individual agendas that need to be pulled back or eliminated. We may finish with 15 guys, but they will be 15 guys who do it the way we want with enthusiasm.”
UA’s JJ Matijevic was wrecking ASU by himself Tuesday with two home runs and five RBIs. His second homer to right and fifth of season was a two-run shot off reliever Zach Dixon. Later in the fifth, Cal Stevenson joined in the act with a grand slam to right off Ryan Hingst, boosting the Wildcats’ lead to 11-1.
Dixon was knocked out of the game after being hit by a line drive while pitching to his second batter.
ASU ran itself out of the third inning trying to score on a foul fly near first base. UA second baseman Kyle Lewis made a tough catch and threw out Andrew Shaps trying to score.
In the seventh, after the first two ASU batters reached, freshman Hunter Bishop started to first base thinking he had walked only to be rung up on a called strikeout by umpire Darren Hyman. Shaps walked loading the bases and freshman Lyle Lin hit into a double play.
In the UA seventh, ASU pitcher Reagan Todd hit Cesar Salazar with his first pitch, leading to an ejection of Sun Devil assistant coach Ben Greenspan.
Jackson Willeford, who began his career at Arizona, had a pinch-hit home run for ASU in the eighth.
UA committed two first-inning errors, helping ASU to get on the board first after consecutive singles by Shaps and Lin. Shaps reached third on the first error by shortstop Louis Boyd and scored on a bases-loaded, one-out grounder by Tyler Williams.
The lead didn’t last long. Two of UA’s first three batters reached in the first and scored on a Matijevic double over right fielder Gage Canning. The Wildcats added a third run on an overthrow pickoff try by catcher Zach Cerbo, allowing Matijevic to score from third.
UA added a run in the second for a 4-1 lead. Boyd walked with one out and scored from second on a two-out single by Alfonso Rivas.