ASU baseball coach Pat Murphy joked last weekend that it usually takes the No. 5 Sun Devils one time through the batting order before the offense gets going.
In Sunday’s College World Series game against North Carolina, the Sun Devil bats were nonexistent the first four times through the batting order.
But when the offense finally came alive, it erupted.
ASU struck for four runs in the tenth inning to overcome a stellar pitching outing by North Carolina junior right-hander Alex White and beat the No. 4 Tar Heels 5-2 at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha.
“For some reason, these boys just keep playing, and they come up big when it needs to be big,” ASU assistant head coach Tim Esmay said in his postgame radio interview. “This team doesn’t play nervous. They just play straight-up and just try to show up and play.”
White pitched nine innings, allowed just one run and had a career-high 12 strikeouts, but UNC coach Mike Fox turned things over to his bullpen with the score tied 1-1 at the start of extra innings.
And the Sun Devils (50-12) were clearly happy to see another face on the mound.
A one-out single down the right-field line by freshman shortstop Drew Maggi started the rally, and then junior center fielder Jason Kipnis reached on an error when UNC senior right fielder Garrett Gore dropped a fly ball.
Junior catcher Carlos Ramirez broke the tie on an RBI single up the middle to score Maggi, and then junior leftfielder Kole Calhoun added the exclamation point when he sent a three-run homer into the left-field bleachers to give ASU a 5-1 lead.
“I got the 1-1 pitch up in the wind, and the wind took over,” Calhoun said. “I was trying to have a better at-bat than my one before, and it wasn’t hard. [Murphy] told me to take what he gives me, and I did and hit it into left center. Fortunately, it got up in the air.”
The Tar Heels (47-17) scratched a run across in the bottom of the inning, but freshman left-hander Mitchell Lambson nailed things down after that to notch his ninth win of the season.
The five combined runs in the extra frame was nearly triple the amount that had crossed home plate during the first nine innings.
ASU scored its first run in the second inning on an RBI single by freshman second baseman Zack MacPhee, and the Tar Heels got on the board in the sixth inning on an RBI single by Gore.
Meanwhile, White and ASU left-hander Josh Spence matched each other pitch for pitch.
“You can’t play a 1-1 ballgame in the tenth if you didn’t have pitchers that made big pitches during the ballgame and made big pitches with guys on base,” Esmay said. “Hats off to both of those guys. That was a very well-pitched College World Series baseball game.”
Spence allowed eight hits in eight innings of work and consistently pitched himself out of jams all afternoon. He struck out sophomore left fielder Ben Bunting with the bases loaded to end the fourth inning and then got freshman designated hitter Jacob Stallings to ground into an inning-ending double play with two runners on in the sixth.
“[Spence] was magnificent,” Murphy said.
There was much speculation about whether Murphy would send Spence or junior right-hander Mike Leake to the mound in the Sun Devils’ first World Series game, but he opted to go with Spence because of the Tar Heels’ lineup full of left-handed bats.
That saves the ace Leake for Tuesday’s game, where the Sun Devils will face Texas.
“People outside the clubhouse are probably wondering why you don’t go with Mike Leake, but I’ll tell you, there was nobody in our dugout that said that,” Esmay said. “Whether we have Mike Leake or Josh Spence on the mound, there’s a calmness in our dugout knowing that we have a good chance for a good game that day.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com