Junior right-hander Darin Gillies did all that was asked of him against No. 19 Tennessee, but ASU baseball was unable to mount a comeback again Sunday afternoon after a hot start.
An improved defensive performance behind Gillies kept a stellar Tennessee offense at bay early, holding the Volunteers (13-1) to only three runs on seven hits and allowing just one walk in 4 1/3 innings of work.
Coach Tim Esmay was satisfied with the outing of his new third starter.
“(Gillies) pounded the zone, and they were taking good swings on him, but he got us through five, and that’s what we asked him to do today,”Esmay said.
ASU got out to an early 2-0 lead on a home-run by sophomore designated hitter RJ Ybarra, whose four RBIs accounted for the entire Sun Devil offense Sunday afternoon.
“He’s definitely a better hitter than he was last year as a freshman,” Esmay said.
Ybarra said that offseason work with assistant coach Mike Benjamin was one reason he had begun to improve his swing and two-strike approach.
“He’s a more mature, calmer hitter,” Esmay said. “For some of our younger guys, it’s still pitch-by-pitch, and they start to speed the at-bats up.”
Ybarra said that last year he was not as confident and used to “just swing as hard as I could” in two-strike counts.
“They’re not used to 2-2 sliders or 3-1 change-ups, and RJ is doing a good job staying over balls and not letting that happen to him,” Esmay said.
Conversely, Esmay was not pleased with the rest of the Sun Devil lineup.
“We didn’t have very good at bats today, and I never felt like we put any pressure on them at all,” he said.
Ybarra agreed with his coach’s assessment of his improved poise.
“I got feedback from the coaches, and the goal was to make me a tougher out, instead of 0-1, 0-2, and ‘see ya later,’ ” Ybarra said.
Ybarra acknowledged that the Tennessee pitching staff’s combined effort was impressive.
“They just hit their spots,” Ybarra said. “(They gave us) tough pitches, and gave us stuff we couldn’t handle sometimes, (they) threw the ball really well. It was a long bullpen day for them, but we didn’t get the timely hits like we needed to.”
Esmay echoed the sentiments of his sophomore slugger.
“I felt like we got exposed this weekend to some good pitching. Some of our younger guys got used to being pitched to a bit differently,” Esmay said. “Those guys over there have a game plan, and they executed it. We didn’t handle it very well.”
Esmay conceded that facing a solid pitching staff was a learning experience for his young team.
“Their ability to execute pitches exposed us this weekend,” Esmay said. “The bad thing is we lost a couple games because of it, but the good thing is our guys understand what we have to do to adjust.”
A pivotal sixth inning for Tennessee gave the Volunteers a chance to open up a tied game. Sophomore left fielder Christin Stewart smashed a double to the left field fence, later scoring on a single byfreshman first baseman Nathaniel Maggio.
Freshman left-hander Nick Diamond surrendered a bases-loaded walk to freshman designated hitter Nick Senzel to bring home senior third baseman Taylor Smart and give Tennessee a commanding 6-3 lead.
The Sun Devils have just one game remaining before conference play starts at home against Washington on Friday. Esmay said he thought that the Tennessee series would only benefit them as they prepare for their upcoming Pac-12 schedule.
“We’re playing one of the toughest schedules in the country, so I ask our guys, what will you learn from this, and how will you grow?” Esmay said. “It allows us to move forward and see how we can combat adjustments being made by other teams facing us.”
Ybarra said that having a playoff-like series so early in the season was beneficial for the Sun Devils (7-6).
“Playing games like this are going to help us, playing against a tough team like this in the SEC,” Ybarra said. “It’s going to help us out in the Pac-12, because the Pac-12 is tough. It will help us going up against Washington.”
While the start isn’t what Ybarra and the Sun Devils had hoped for, there is still a lot of baseball to be played yet.
“It’s still early, but nobody’s panicking. We’re gonna get after it and go chase wins,” Ybarra said.
ASU hosts the New Mexico Lobos at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 12, at 6:30 p.m.
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