RJ Ybarra's walk-off bails out ASU baseball's bullpen collapse
The scoreboard in left-center field at 40-year-old Packard Stadium read "Home Run," even though sophomore designated hitter RJ Ybarra had just crushed a bases-clearing double.
It was that kind of night for ASU. Despite the fact that none of their hits left the yard, the Sun Devils generated plenty of offense in the early innings, en route to a 10-9 win in 11 innings.
Coach Tim Esmay acknowledged that scoring becomes even more difficult in Pac-12 play.
"Runs are hard to come by, " Esmay said. "We scorched some balls, and so did (USC). It's making it tougher to separate yourself during a ballgame. And guys in the Pac-12 can pitch a little bit. They flipped the game by bringing in their closer, and we did a good job of battling them."
Ybarra's assessment was more blunt.
"I swung at good pitches today," Ybarra said.
The same could be said for the heart of the ASU order, which wasted no time teeing off of senior left-hander Bob Wheatley, with the a three-run outburst in the bottom of the first.
"Guys (were) getting on base, doing their job, it was a great team effort tonight. We were relentlessly chasing after the win," Ybarra said.
Esmay was excited by his team's offensive output.
"We had really good at-bats tonight, and it's nice to see the top of our order getting the majority of those hits and RBIs," Esmay said.
Junior first baseman Nathaniel Causey recorded his 12th RBI with a double to center, scoring sophomore centerfielder Johnny Sewald. Junior leftfielder Jake Peevyhouse continued his hot streak, knocking in two runs with the fifth of six consecutive hits for ASU in the inning.
Ybarra had a career-high five RBIs, driving in three of them in the bottom of the third with the bases loaded against sophomore left-hander Kyle Twomey.
"Yeah, we gave a couple of runs away in the 9th, but we kept fighting and battled back," Ybarra said. "We weren't happy that we let the game get tied up, but we stayed disciplined and picked each other up."
Sophomore left-hander Ryan Kellogg was effective, giving up eight hits over five innings, with two strikeouts. His two earned runs came in the third inning, after giving up consecutive singles.
While USC had to go to their bullpen much earlier after only getting two innings from Wheatley, the ASU relievers were shaky.
The combination of sophomore relievers Ryan Burr and Jordan Aboites blew the save opportunity, squandering a comfortable lead and giving up four earned runs.
Burr hit senior third baseman Kevin Swick, and walked two batters, including the tying run in the 9th. Burr's fastball command was suspect, but Esmay was not concerned.
"That's the first time that's happened all year," Esmay said. "Sometimes that happens. Obviously, that's not how you want it to end up. But that's part of being a closer, some times it doesn't go how you want it. He made some filthy pitches to keep that game tied and allow us to keep playing."
Esmay added that the bullpen was efficient in terms of pitch count in the later innings, despite the initial struggles.
But perhaps the most intriguing story of the night, was that of freshman catcher Brian Serven, who added a hit, two walks, and scored twice.
Serven also threw out two Trojan runners at second base, which proved critical in a one-run win.
"It's been huge," Esmay said. "Teams aren't willing to run as much. Especially in this conference, when you've got a guy like that when guys aren't willing to take chances against him."
After the bullpen shutdown a weary USC offense, it was time for the ASU to close the door for good.
Ybarra said that he maintained his regular approach in the bottom of the 11th, but a key strategic shift setup Ybarra's opportunity to drive home the winning run.
USC executed multiple hit-and-run plays during the early innings, but were not able to manufacture any runs as a result.
ASU turned the tables on the Trojans with some hit-and-run action of their own. As a result, ASU redshirt junior right fielder Trever Allen, was able to advance to to third on a single by Causey.
"By starting Allen up, that helped out," Esmay said. "Sometimes, you don't wanna start him up because you wanna leave that side open for Causey, because that's kind of where his swing works. Causey took a good swing, and it really opened that inning up."
The heads-up base running positioned Allen at third. A desperation infield shift brought rightfielder Vahn Bozoian in as a seventh infielder, positioned between first and second base for the left-handed Peevyhouse.
A chopper to Bozoian enabled the Trojans to get the 9-2 forceout at home, but the winning run remained at third base in Causey.
Bozoian would drift back to his natural position, and could do little to impact the next play.
Ybarra lofted a soft line drive to left field, and Causey tagged and scored easily from third.
Esmay added that base running is crucial in conference play, especially against a USC team known for keeping opposing running games at bay.
"We still do it. It's situational," Esmay said. "You've got to have the right personnel at the plate, and certain counts. We go into every game trying to move runners, but they do a good job holding runners on over there."
ASU freshman righty Seth Martinez improved to 2-0 with the win, while sophomore Kyle Davis fell to 1-1 for USC.
The Sun Devils will go for their 14th straight home win versus USC and a series sweep on Sunday at 12:30 p.m.
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