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ASU baseball's bullpen blunders, loses multiple leads

Solid starting pitching has been overshadowed by a number of late-inning collapses from Sun Devil relievers

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ASU right-handed pitcher sophomore Jacob Walker (46) walks off the mound against Oklahoma State at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on Thursday, March 3, 2022. 

Through 26 games in the 2022 baseball season, ASU baseball has possessed an 11-15 record. The bullpen has been responsible for 11 of those 15 losses.

Pitching for the Sun Devils has been an overall struggle this season, combining for a 5.94 ERA. Twelve of 17 pitchers to take the mound have an ERA over 5.00.

The bullpen only has three pitchers with an ERA under 4.00: redshirt junior Will Levine, redshirt senior Boyd Vander-Kooi and junior Chase Webster. The issue is known between fans and coaches, but the coaching staff is still figuring out how to use the bullpen effectively. 

"If I had the answer to that we probably wouldn't be talking about it," head coach Willie Bloomquist said regarding bullpen woes. "We can't give up free bases, I don't care if you get lit up around the yard, it's better than giving up free bases."

Free bases have been an issue, as Sun Devil pitchers have given up a total of 118 walks this season, with their combined walks and hits per innings pitched sitting at 1.60.

Starting pitchers are overshadowed by headlines of losses, with pitchers like redshirt juniors Adam Tulloch and Kyle Luckham going deep into games just for the bullpen to blow late inning leads.

In the three-game series against BYU at the end of February, the bullpen was held responsible for two of the three losses. 

In the first game, Luckham pitched five scoreless innings, just for the bullpen to allow three runs in the final two innings to lose 4-2. In the second game, a meltdown in the ninth inning from sophomore pitcher Brock Peery cost Tulloch the victory in a remarkable outing.

ASU has lost in extra innings three times: a 6-7 loss against Dixie State, a 2-3 loss against UC Irvine and a 4-6 loss against Washington. ASU even had leads in the two-game series against No. 6 Oklahoma State before dropping both games. 

"They've all been tough to swallow," Bloomquist said. "For me, the score sucks, we don't like coming out on the losing end but what I will say is: I have no problem with the effort and the mentality that these guys are putting out there."

Over the last five seasons, Sun Devil pitching has averaged a 4.81 ERA, with their best pitching season in recent history coming in 2020 when they accumulated a combined 3.56 ERA. 

Their best pitcher that season, Vander-Kooi, pitched a phenomenal 0.70 ERA in 25.2 innings, leading the team to a 13-4 record in a shortened 2020 season. 

After missing the majority of the 2021 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, Vander-Kooi has been one of the more consistent arms out of the bullpen this season, pitching a 2.08 ERA in three appearances.

READ MORE: How ASU baseball pitcher's resilience guided him back to the mound

"I feel great right now," Vander-Kooi said. "Just listening to my body and taking it day by day, hopefully we keep moving forward with that."

In 2010, the last time ASU reached the College World Series, the pitchers had a combined 3.32 ERA, with Brady Rodgers leading the way with a 2.11 ERA that season.

As of late, Bloomquist and pitching coach Sam Peraza have been actively pursuing pitching recruits, hoping to bolster their struggling pitching staff for the future. 

"This school has been known for hitting, but we want to make pitching here a priority as well," Peraza said. "We have some good freshmen coming in and I feel like we're in good shape moving forward."

ASU coaches hope the upcoming freshman class can help the pitching staff for years to come. But for right now, the coaches look to bolster a struggling bullpen to help their team win games. Even with all the struggles, the team still has spirit and wants to fight to the end.

"We have guys who know when to get ready before I'm even calling their name," Peraza said. "They're starting to understand what is asked of them and that's been important and that's been crucial to being better out of the bullpen."

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Aaron SchmidtSports Reporter

Aaron Schmidt is a sports reporter who covers ASU Baseball and ASU Women’s Golf for The State Press. He previously covered Higley High School football for AZPreps365.

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