ASU baseball grinds out first victory of season with strong pitching, defense

The Sun Devils stranded 10 Hornets runners on base, including two in the ninth inning, and allowed just one run

ASU baseball's 2-1 victory on Saturday night against Sacramento State was a summation of what its coaches expected to see from the team early on this season.

The pitching was stellar, led by redshirt sophomore Tyler Thornton's 5.2 innings of 1-run ball. Its defense made keys plays and the Sun Devils were aggressive on the base paths. Despite a night of offensive deficiencies, ASU pulled out a gritty victory, its first of the season. 

The Sun Devils lost four impactful hitters to the MLB Draft and retained much of a pitching staff that had high expectations last year. Add in a new-look lineup with good speed, and ASU sets up as a team designed for wins like Saturday, at least early on. Head coach Tracy Smith believes his offense is bound to improve. 

"We've got good hitters who are not hitting right now and those guys are going to come around and once that does, with the pitching and the defense we have, we'll be in position to win a lot of ballgames," Smith said.

On Saturday, Thornton's demeanor never changed during three innings in which runners reached scoring position on the basepaths. The Hornets went 0-for-6 with with runners in scoring position against him with three strikeouts, and Thornton finished his outing with six punchouts and no walks. 

"As much as anything else, it's his competitiveness," Smith said. "He's not going to give in, he's going to make you beat him."

Behind him, redshirt freshman right fielder Kai Murphy flipped over the wall in foul ground to make a catch in the first inning and redshirt junior shortstop Drew Swift threw out a runner going home in the fifth. 

The defense seemed to always make the big putout when needed. Freshman third baseman Hunter Haas laid out for a diving stop and threw the runner out from his knee to lead off the eighth inning, a critical moment considering Sacramento State's three-hole hitter was due up next. 

"Every pitcher here has to feel good with the defense that we have," Thornton said. 

Redshirt junior Justin Fall took over for Thornton in the sixth, and he led the Sun Devils to the ninth inning unscathed. His velocity was lower than usual on the gun, sitting 90-92 miles per hour. But, his slider was effective. 

True freshman Ethan Long came in to close, making his NCAA debut. He found himself in a 12-pitch battle to start, which resulted in a walk, and had to deal with runners on the corners with two outs. But, he showed poise, as a shallow fly out to center field ended the game.

"Not to let that at-bat impact the emotions, (Long) stayed with his confidence and stayed with his good stuff and was still aggressive in the zone," Smith said.

The offense struggled to bring home runs like in Friday night's 4-2 loss, but ASU managed to double its hit total to eight. 

Redshirt freshman Joe Lampe was especially disruptive, going 3-for-3, a home run shy of the cycle. His speed and aggression earned him extra-base hits. 

This was evident in the fifth inning when he hit a ground ball up the middle. Lampe noticed that the outfield was playing back and the centerfielder was easing up to the ball, so he dug in and stretched what looked like a single into a double. 

"The only way you get there is with no hesitation," Lampe said.

Swift drove Lampe home with a base hit to left, giving ASU the 2-1 lead. The Sun Devils' first run came from a solo blast from Murphy to lead off the fifth. 

ASU finished just 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position on the night.

Lampe said that he believes the timely hits will come, and when they do "it will be a fun ride."

The decisive game of the series is Sunday at 12:35 MST. 

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