Most of ASU baseball's eight losses so far this season shared a similar theme: late-game heartbreak.
Each of the Sun Devils' first three losses resulted from losing leads in the final three innings. In consecutive losses against Oregon, ASU's first Pac-12 series, the team was outscored by a combined 7-2 past the fifth inning.
The trend continued in a three-game series against UA last weekend. ASU blew a lead in the seventh inning of the first game and in the eighth inning of the second, eventually losing both.
Overall, ASU has led in every game this season except for one.
The Sun Devils have scored runs early in many games, but consistently grinding out at-bats and keeping the line moving has been a shortcoming late in games. Over the past nine games, ASU has put up seven runs past the sixth inning.
"That's a little bit of our immaturity offensively that we kind of ride the momentum," said head coach Tracy Smith. "We've got to do a better job of sticking together consistent ABs and be a threat every inning. You're not going to score every inning, but you want to make sure you pile on and stacking up good at-bats."
Lack of experience also plays a factor in the team's late-game struggles. Six of the nine players with the most at-bats for ASU are redshirt or true freshmen. Since the 2020 season was cut short before conference play, none of those hitters had experience against Pac-12 pitching before this year.
"It's a good reminder for us that there are some growing pains with that," associate head coach Ben Greenspan said March 31. "There's going to be immature at-bats here and there because those guys just don't have the seasoning."
For the players, these pitfalls have been a reminder to keep the pressure on. Redshirt junior shortstop Drew Swift said the Sun Devils need to maintain their approach of producing tough at-bats, making better contact and forcing the defense to earn outs.
Redshirt freshman second baseman Sean McLain said the team has a tendency to start hot and then lose discipline. Smith said the team's margin for error is very small in a strong Pac-12 conference, and players have reciprocated that point.
ASU's margin for error has slimmed even more since the team is without three starters due to Tommy John surgery and freshman closer Ethan Long with a shoulder issue.
While their late-game hitting has faltered, the team's pitching has performed well aside from a few hiccups.
One of those hiccups came last Friday against UA when redshirt freshman pitcher Graham Osman allowed three runs in the eighth inning after two scoreless innings. Smith and pitching coach Jason Kelly kept Osman in the game after pitching two innings for left-handed matchups, which backfired.
On Tuesday night, Smith said he does not have a timetable for Long to return to the mound — although he has been able to hit in the meantime. The injury puts more stress on the pitching staff's depth, and Smith showed frustration that his players may not be getting due credit for overcoming these obstacles.
"We're going to battle our rear ends off to do what we can to be competitive, but damn it, I don't want anybody to act like you lose three starting pitchers, your weekend rotation, and everything's fine," Smith said. "It's not. Our guys are playing hard. So I get a little frustrated if that effort is not being recognized ... It's not going to be easy. But you can't negate the fact that everything's been moved back and not just one spot, but three, and you lose your closer, too."
ASU's first step in adapting to these issues will be reworking the weekend rotation. It had been utilizing a bullpen game on Fridays and having redshirt sophomore Tyler Thornton and redshirt junior Justin Fall start on Saturdays and Sundays, respectively.
The idea behind that rotation was believing Thornton could go deep into games to refresh the bullpen for Sundays. Now that Fall has performed well, ASU will use Thornton on Fridays and Fall on Saturdays in an attempt to save bullpen arms for Sunday.
ASU is a young team with many young batters and pitchers. The Sun Devils have been able to get ahead and stay competitive in nearly all of their games. But to reach their full potential, the bats will need to stay alive late, and the coaches must devise how to best maneuver ongoing questions with overcoming the pitching injuries.
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