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Wildcats visit Sun Devils for non-conference battle

Brady Rodgers throws a pitch in the blackout game against USC on April 13. Rodgers and the pitching staff are expected to have a big impact against the hot-hitting Wildcats on Tuesday. (Photo by Sam Rosenbaum)
Brady Rodgers throws a pitch in the blackout game against USC on April 13. Rodgers and the pitching staff are expected to have a big impact against the hot-hitting Wildcats on Tuesday. (Photo by Sam Rosenbaum)

Immediately following ASU’s sweep of USC this weekend, coach Tim Esmay gathered his team on the infield of Packard Stadium and reminded them of the importance of Tuesday’s matchup against rival UA.

“We talked about U of A as soon as we got up at the end of (Sunday’s) ballgame,” Esmay said. “U of A is the best team in the Pac-12 right now, so that’s a great challenge for us.”

The No. 21 Sun Devils (23–13, 9–6 Pac-12) play host to the No. 8 Wildcats (24–11, 10–5 Pac-12), who currently sit in a three-way tie atop the conference standings with UCLA and Oregon. ASU is just one game back of the leaders, although Tuesday’s contest will count as a non-conference affair for both schools.

The fact that ASU and UA have planned non-conference games against one another for both Tuesday and May 16 is a sign of respect between the two schools, Esmay said, as the teams have just one official Pac-12 series with each other on the schedule (May 25-27 at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson).

It’s also an indication of how badly each school wants to prove it’s better than its rival.

“I’m glad that we do (play non-conference games against UA), because it allows us to not lose that sense of the old days when you used to play three and three,” Esmay said. “From both sides, it’s a pretty respectful thing. Trust me, they’ll be charged up and ready to go also, and that will make it fun.”

Heading into their first altercation with a talented UA squad this season, all the Sun Devils are concerned about is maintaining the high level of play that has earned them victories in seven of their last eight contests.

“We just have to go out and continue what we’ve been doing: playing team baseball, putting together good at bats (and) throwing the baseball well,” freshman pitcher Darin Gillies said. “If we keep going out and doing what we’re doing, we’ll be fine.”

Although the Wildcats remain ahead of the Sun Devils in the standings, ASU is riding a wave of momentum into the game thanks to its recent sweep of the Trojans. On the other hand, UA is coming off its first weekend series loss in 2012 at the hands of UCLA.

“Momentum in the Pac-12 is a huge thing,” Esmay said. “When you have an opportunity to sweep a series, you’ve got to go out and play like we did (Sunday). Get on them early, play great defense, don’t let the door open — all that stuff.”

The Wildcats are a veteran team that can swing the stick, as UA owns a .326 team batting average, best in the Pac-12. The team also leads the conference in hits (391) and RBI (216).

“On paper, they’re a mature group,” Esmay said. “When they were freshman, they were in the hunt for (the Pac-10 title) early in the season. That group has swung the bat since they’ve been down there.”

The matchup of the potent UA bats against the dominant ASU pitching staff — which holds a conference-best 2.57 cumulative ERA — sets the stage for a dogfight at Packard Stadium.

Despite the bragging rights at stake, ASU’s mindset isn’t going to change. Sophomore pitcher Trevor Williams noted the team’s mantra is “to win the seventh, eighth and ninth innings,” and the Sun Devils will stick to that plan via loose, uninhibited play against the Wildcats.

“We’re going to be committed to playing aggressive and playing hard,” Esmay said. “Sometimes you’re going to get thrown out (on the bases), but we’ve got to keep playing that way.”

Junior right-hander Alex Blackford (1–2, 5.23 ERA), who is coming off a productive one-run, six-inning outing in a win last week against New Mexico, will take the hill for the Sun Devils. First pitch is at 6:30 p.m.

“Either way, we’ve got to keep moving forward after (Tuesday’s) game,” sophomore outfielder James McDonald said. “But definitely, our goal is to beat them. Our goal is to always beat UA.”

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