Sun Devils drag down high-flying Bears, postseason hopes

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Up 3-1 on the Sun Devils in the seventh inning of Saturday’s game, Cal had put itself in the driver seat to take arguably its most important series of the year. The Bears, who had already taken game one and were on a six-game winning streak, were riding high.

But baseball is a cruel sport. And one swing of the bat later, all the momentum came crashing down.

A two-run shot by ASU’s hottest hitter, Ethan Long, tied the game, spoiling an absolute gem of a start by Cal’s Sean Sullivan. An RBI double an inning later and another two-run bomb from Long in the ninth proved to be the dagger in the back of the Bears, who would be outscored 10-2 in the series following Long’s first homer.

With the two losses, the Bears have put themselves into a nearly inescapable hole, as a 24-21 overall record, coupled with a 10-11 conference record and 107 RPI, puts them well outside the postseason bubble.

“To see us come out and play well enough to win, it was obviously just disappointing that we couldn’t finish it off,” head coach Mike Neu said.

The disappointing finish to the weekend was not indicative of how Cal had been playing, as Friday’s 7-2 victory may have been the team’s best all-around game of the year. Josh White, the Bears’ most consistent and effective pitcher this year, took the spotlight in his second Friday start of the year, holding the Sun Devils scoreless in a dominant 5 ⅔ inning outing. The sophomore’s 1.55 ERA leads the Pac-12, and he has quietly slotted himself in as one of the conference’s premier pitchers with his outstanding peripherals — a 4-1 record, three saves, one home run allowed in 46.1 innings pitched and a 11.46 K/P (second in the Pac-12).

The bats were also highly efficient at scoring runs in game one, especially at the bottom of the order: Cal’s 7-9 hitters combined to go 6-10 with three runs and four RBI. Sophomore Keshawn Ogans stayed hot with a towering solo home run — and a cheeky bat flip to go with it — to kick off the scoring while sophomore Steven Zobac led the Bears’ offensive onslaught with three hits.

“We have had some breakout games,” Neu said of his offense. “We just have to get a little more consistent all the way around.”

Unfortunately for the squad in dire need of a signature series win, the lineup couldn’t find that consistent production all weekend. It’s been a recurring theme for the Bears, who have struggled to put runs on the board at times.

Sullivan fell victim to that lack of production, taking possibly the unluckiest loss of any pitcher this year — and there have been a fair share of unfortunate losses — as his record fell to 3-5 despite giving up just three hits in 7 ⅔ innings of work. Two of those hits were back-breaking homers, while the bullpen would allow his only inherited runner, resulting in four earned, but not deserved, runs allowed.

Despite scoring three runs in the first four innings, the bats couldn’t back up Sullivan’s gem of a start, as they didn’t pick up a hit after the fourth inning. Credit must be given to ASU starter Justin Fall, who turned in a gritty performance after a tough stretch early on, throwing a complete game on more than 130 pitches.

Though Fall’s effort helped save an injury-depleted Sun Devil pitching staff, the red and gold were nonetheless forced to turn to an unproven redshirt freshman for a pivotal Sunday start against Cal’s top draft prospect Grant Holman. Kai Murphy, standing at 5’8” with a fastball in the low- to mid-80s and just 1 ⅔ innings thrown under his belt this season, would rise above the challenge.

Murphy threw seven absolutely dominant innings, allowing just two baserunners in an incredibly efficient outing. Despite not having the stuff that other pitchers toeing the rubber that weekend boasted, the freshman phenom was able to keep Cal hitters off balance and frustrated all game en route to his first collegiate win.

With both strong pitching and a hitting barrage, the Sun Devils flipped Friday’s script on its head, this time taking a 7-2 victory and a series win.

The Bears have now put themselves in a position where they need to win every series, and possibly every game, left on their schedule. Unfortunately, this will be quite the tall task, as their next three opponents all rank in the top 25.

“We’re not in the position we would like to be in,” Neu said. “But we are where we are. Hopefully we can get hot here and make a run.”

Cal’s next matchup, the Big Series against No. 12 Stanford at home, might be the toughest of them all. The Cardinal are the Pac-12’s hottest team and quite the tough opponent for the Bears, having just come off a series win against No. 13 Arizona and having already beaten Cal 4-3 earlier this season in a midweek game.

If there’s ever a chance to turn a season and a team’s confidence around, however, it is against one’s bitter rivals. For Neu and the Bears, the hope is that a turnaround isn’t too little, too late.

Noah Parker covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].