Weekend Preview: No. 18 Sun Devils look to right ship in Long Beach

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Arizona State baseball team took two of their first four games of the season. Now, they hit the road for a four-team tournament in Long Beach, Calif. to face Long Beach State, UC Irvine and Wright State.

After winning its opening series against Baylor on the third day, Arizona State (2-2) dropped their first midweek game two days later. The team has not had a midweek game after its opening weekend since 2009, before head coach Tim Esmay took the reigns. 

Esmay admitted Tuesday’s loss to New Mexico felt a little unusual.

“We haven’t done this too often, play a Tuesday game at the beginning of the season,” said Esmay. “It’s usually weekend-weekend so the guys kind of get into a flow.”

Now, the Sun Devils have two weekend-long tournaments in a row, as they follow this Long Beach tournament with the Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic next weekend.

There have been no announced changes to the starting rotation, meaning that the Sun Devils will stick to sophomores RHP Ryan Burr, LHP Ryan Kellogg and LHP Brett Lilek. Of the three, Lilek performed the best against Baylor. The lefty threw four scoreless innings on Sunday, giving up two hits and one walk while striking out seven. Lilek did not last as long as he wanted due to a mandated pitch count, but he knows he will get his once in-conference play picks up.

“I know [the coaches] want to just take it easy and keep us healthy,” said Lilek, a South Holland, Ill. native who had a tough time working out back home this winter due to snow storms. “Right now, it’s just getting us innings and getting us ready for the Pac-12.”

An area of concern going into last weekend was whether or not the Arizona State bullpen can effectively close out games. A number of relievers performed well over the weekend, among them true freshman RHP Eder Erives, sophomore RHP Eric Melbostad and redshirt freshman LHP Nick Diamond. Erives threw one inning on Sunday and 1.1 innings on Tuesday, allowing a combined two hits and one walk with four strikeouts. Melbostad (1-0) went four solid innings in Saturday’s win, retiring the last 12 batters he faced after surrendering a hit to the first batter he faced. And Diamond (0-1), the lone lefty in the pen, turned Friday’s losing one-inning performance into a three inning gem on Tuesday, where he left hitters guessing with his big, sweeping curveball. All three are instrumental in the set-up process and will be among the first to get appearances once the starters are comfortable pitching into the later innings.

The Sun Devils start the tournament on Friday night against the 0-4 Long Beach State Dirtbags. LBSU dropped three straight at home to perennial Omaha contender Vanderbilt, followed by a midweek loss at Pepperdine. The Dirtbags scored just seven runs in those four games. Not many players stand out offensively for Long Beach State, but junior RF Richard Prigatano leads the team with three runs batted in and a .467 on-base percentage. As a collective, the Dirtbags are batting .168 through four games. Junior LHP Nick Sabo (0-1), the Friday starter, threw 5.2 innings in Friday’s 5-2 loss to Vandy, giving up four hits, three runs (one earned) and two walks to go along with five strikeouts and two hit batters.

Less than 24 hours later, the Sun Devils face UC Irvine (2-2) on Saturday. The Anteaters went to extra innings on both Friday and Saturday against Fresno State, losing both games and eventually losing the series. Head coach Mike Gillespie earned his 998th Division I victory on Wednesday against Cal State Bakersfield, and has a chance to pick up that coveted 1000th win over Arizona State. Gillespie coached USC for 20 years (1987-2006) before making the move to UC Irvine. Under Gillespie, the Anteaters spent four seasons at .700 or better (2008-2011) and made two Super Regionals in 2008 and 2011. Offensively, redshirt freshman LF/DH Grant Palmer leads the Anteaters in hits (six) and total bases (six) and is tied for the team lead in runs (three) and batting average (.500). As a team, UC Irvine has scored just 11 runs in four games, and only four of their 25 hits have been for extra bases.

Arizona State concludes the tournament with Wright State (1-2) on Sunday afternoon. The Raiders are the only team not to play a midweek game before leaving for Long Beach, having finished an away series last weekend at Michigan State. Wright State is the best hitting team that the Sun Devils will face, posting a .235 average through three games. Senior OF Kieston Greene, junior 1B Andrew McCafferty and freshman C/DH Sean Murphy produce a majority of this team’s offense. They are batting .389/.436/.528 with 14 hits, five doubles and four RBIs between the three of them. Last Sunday’s Raiders starter, sophomore LHP Robby Sexton, threw 5.1 innings in his first start of 2014, giving up four hits, two runs and one walk in Michigan State’s 2-1 series-deciding win.

Arizona State can sweep the tournament by… pitching well through all nine innings of each game. The Sun Devils have a clear offensive advantage, so as long as each pitcher can do his job and not hand bad situations to their in-game successor, they will emerge from the weekend unblemished.

First pitch on Friday is scheduled for 7 p.m. MST. Saturday and Sunday’s games start at 2 p.m. MST.