Sun Devils moving through Pac-12 with growing momentum

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- There is a motto written on the whiteboard in the clubhouse that says “The Pac’s won on Sundays.” This season, the Arizona State baseball team is 5-3 overall on Sundays with a 2-2 record against Pac-12 teams.

But the No. 25 Sun Devils (17-12, 7-5 Pac-12) have won each of their past three conference series, including back-to-back road series against ranked teams for the first time in school history. And with the halfway point of the season behind them and a home stand to finish, this team’s push for the Pac is looking stronger each week despite that coveted Sunday win last weekend.

The Devils got big performances against USC from sophomore RJ Ybarra (4-for-8, eight RBIs) and junior Nathaniel Causey (7-for-12, six runs, four walks). With Saturday’s sac fly in the eleventh inning, Ybarra picked up his fifth career game-winning hit. Causey’s batting average is still hovering around .400, and for someone who only recently has fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, the big lefty has been swinging the bat remarkably well.  

Even though the Devils took two of three from USC, both head coach Tim Esmay and his team know that they missed the boat on a crucial series sweep last weekend. At practice on Tuesday, sophomore reliever Eric Melbostad said that while the team is not necessarily disappointed, “we expect sweeps from ourselves. For our personal goals, yea, we didn’t reach it [Sunday].”

Melbostad was superb in Sunday’s contest, pitching the latter 2.2 innings of the game and only allowing a walk. Redshirt senior Zak Miller, redshirt junior Cory Bernard and freshman Hever Bueno also pitched well out of the bullpen, but the quality of the starts by the starters was not there.

Sophomore Brett Lilek threw 100 pitches over 5.2 innings.  Sophomore Ryan Kellogg threw 95 pitches in five innings, and junior Darin Gillies threw 76 pitches over 2.2 innings. What all three have in common is that they all hovered around 40 pitches or more after just two innings.  

Lilek talked about pitching coach Ken Knutson’s WOW (White On White) philosophy at practice on Tuesday and how it started to get away from the pitching staff this weekend. Knutson believes that the less his pitchers try to pick their spots and the more they throw pitches that hitters can hit, the more likely the result of that at-bat will be an out. When asked what the staff needs to do to get back to this, Lilek said, “I think the majority of us just have to have more confidence in our stuff.”

The defense gave the starters and the fans plenty to be confident in, as they only allowed two errors over those three games. The only series in which the Devils recorded less errors was opening weekend against Baylor back in February.

A special note: Saturday’s extra-inning victory gave Esmay his 78th conference win, which is the most among Arizona State coaches in their first five seasons.

The Sun Devils will welcome Cal (14-15, 3-3) for a three-game weekend series on Friday, but first up is rival Arizona (14-19, 4-7) on Wednesday. Since the last time these two teams played on Mar. 26, the Wildcats are 3-3, having lost a series at home to Oregon State and won another at Utah. Freshman right-handers will battle at Packard Stadium as Morgan Earman (2-1, 4.50) will face Seth Martinez (2-0, 5.40).  First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m. PST.