A scoreless top half of the first inning from sophomore left-hander Brett Lilek set the stage for a two-run bottom half. In the end, that was all ASU baseball (7-4) needed to defeat previously undefeated No. 19 Tennessee (12-1), 3-1, Friday night.
“Our at-bats early in the game were outstanding,” ASU coach Tim Esmay said. “We attacked them.”
Lilek didn’t start hot. A throwing miscue from sophomore third baseman Dalton DiNatale allowed a runner to reach first and another to advance to second. Lilek struck out the next hitter, but the curve got away from the catcher, freshman Brian Serven, and the runners both advanced a base.
Lilek struck out the next batter to end the inning.
The bottom of the first began when sophomore center fielder Johnny Sewald beat out a throw to first base. Redshirt junior right fielder Allen and sophomore designated hitter RJ Ybarra each knocked in singles of their own, and Sewald scored.
Serven hit into a double play, but a run came home.
ASU led 2-0 after the first and Lilek was beginning to settle down.
He gave up a one-out single in the second, but DiNatale made up for his previous miscue with a nice grab on a laser one-bouncer to turn a double play.
This was not DiNatale’s only athletic defensive play of the game.
“(He) made some big, game-changing plays,” coach Esmay said.
The second-inning hit before DiNatale’s first double play was the last hit Lilek gave up until the seventh inning.
Lilek attributed this to the defense.
“I knew no matter what I did, I was going to have the defensive support behind me,” Lilek said.
Serven also did his share behind the plate, picking off a runner leading off second base.
“That was an athletic catcher that reacted to the game and made a play,” coach Esmay said.
Esmay also pointed out that Serven’s defense goes beyond the box score.
“He’ll shut down the running game,” he said. “It’s tough to run on him.”
On the offensive side, the Sun Devils could not find a way to score off Tennessee starter Nick Williams. The senior came into the game with a 3-0 record, posting a 1.00 ERA and .091 batting average against.
“He hung in there, started getting control of the game in the middle innings and we had to go toe-to-toe,” Esmay said.
DiNatale said in the hitter’s meeting, the team made a game plan to be aggressive.
This went beyond the batter’s box. He mentioned that they focused on stretching singles into doubles and pushing themselves to get from first base to third on plays.
“We just really wanted to put pressure on them,” he said.
This aggression paid its dividends in the seventh when DiNatale shot a home run over the right-field wall. This pushed the lead to 3-0.
Lilek was pulled following the seventh inning. His pre-game ranks were just below Williams, as he had a 1.29 ERA and .106 batting average against. He pitched near flawlessly though, allowing just three hits and one walk in his seven innings of work.
He was replaced by redshirt freshman lefty Nick Diamond. Diamond got a quick out but struggled against the next hitters and allowed two hits in 2/3 innings.
Sophomore right-hander Ryan Burr, who started the season as a starting pitcher after pitching as a closer last season, entered the game.
“By putting Burr back to what he’s really good at, it just shortens the game up for the other team,” Esmay said.
Burr was moved back to the bullpen after struggling in his starts.
“It’s kind of great knowing that you have someone back there like Burr, who’s going to give you a great outing no matter what.,” Lilek said.
Burr allowed a first-pitch double to right field, which brought home Tennessee’s first run of the game. The next batter lined a pitch to second base, and redshirt junior second baseman Tucker Esmay made a nice snare to bring in the ball over his head.
ASU was unable to add insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, so Burr returned to what Lilek called his “natural habitat” in the ninth inning.
He walked sophomore catcher David Houser to start the inning, but struck out the next batter.
Senior infielder Taylor Smart of Tennessee stepped to the plate. This senior came into the game hitting a team-leading .412 with six RBIs.
Burr cooled him off, and Smart hit a pop-out to straight away center.
Burr hit his stride, and struck out the next batter.
“I felt like that last pitch he made to Price to end the game was awesome … That was literally an unhittable pitch,” Esmay said.
ASU held on to win 3-1, and Lilek increased his scoreless pitching streak to 14 innings.
“He’s a good pitcher and he’s grown,” Esmay said. “He’s a focused, relentless kid.”
ASU plays against Tennessee again Saturday night at 6:30 pm.
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