Sewald, Lilek shine; Sun Devils avoid sweep

As originally published on cronkitesports.com, here.

(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/Cronkite Sports)

A mere twelve hours after a deflating 17-inning loss, No. 11 Arizona State gutted out a 2-1 win over No. 3 UCLA to avoid a series sweep on Sunday, as the locked-in approach of Johnny Sewald at the plate and the laser-sharp outing from Brett Lilek on the mound steadied a group that had dropped four in a row.

Back on Friday, Sewald’s season-high 26-game on-base streak was brought to an abrupt halt after UCLA starter James Kaprielian stymied the entire Arizona State offense.

Any semblance of him caring, though, was promptly erased on Saturday when he tallied a career-high five hits, and even more so on Sunday when he laced and RBI single in the fifth and an RBI double in the seventh—accounting for ASU’s only runs of the game.

“Coach Smith said we got to have better at-bats and we got to bring the energy and I think that’s what we did the past two days,” Sewald said. “I know it was definitely tough getting up for this one after playing 17 innings and losing a heartbreaker, but we came out with a lot of energy.”

“I try to get on base anyway I can,” the leadoff man continued. “I’m trying to score runs anyway. We have to have everyone good at-bats, regardless of batting average. Stats don’t really mean much when you’re trying to get wins.”

ASU did have other isolated opportunities to push runs across against the always-stellar Bruins pitching staff—namely when Colby Woodmansee was stranded on third with one out in the fourth and when Brian Serven was stranded on third with one out in the sixth—but Sewald’s tormenting of UCLA pitching was all starting pitcher Brett Lilek needed.

The left-handed junior turned in his best outing both of the season and of his career, twirling a complete game, three-hitter. All told, Lilek racked up seven strikeouts, and more importantly, only walked one and threw 25 of 33 first-pitch strikes—instrumental feats that allowed him to only throw 108 pitches. (Adding perspective, it took him 93 pitches to labor through five innings against Cal in his last outing).

“I knew previous starts I was getting behind early,” Lilek said. “Once you fall behind it gives the hitter the advantage—everyone loves hitting (in a) 2-0 (count). So I figured I’d get ahead early and go from there. I think I did a pretty good job of that.”

“I was proud of him because he was challenged. He was challenged not just from a team standpoint of where we were down 0-2 in the series going into today, but also from a personal level within the context of a team needing (him). ‘We need you and we need you to step up and perform at the level that you’re capable of performing.’ Some guys will crush and be crushed when they’re challenged like that. You saw the result of when this dude is locked in and serious and on top of his game, tell me one that’s better.”

An innocent-looking play in the eighth inning—a play that featured Colby Woodmansee opting to chase down UCLA shortstop Kevin Kramer between second and third instead of taking the force out at first—narrowed the ASU lead to one, and truly could have been key factor in the ninth.

But Lilek was in a groove—one that both he and Tracy Smith attributed to confidence in his secondary pitches.

“It was good to vary it for once. I haven’t thrown a slow little curve for a strike since my freshman year. It was good to get that back and get that working. It was a good change so hitters aren’t sitting on fastball early,” Lilek said. “I think I threw it one time in my bullpen, but in the game I was just feeling it. I had a good release point to it and I threw it for strikes mainly.

“It’s about confidence and any time you talk about secondary stuff, you got to have confidence in you stuff,” coach Smith said. “That’s a very good hitting team and you got to have something that you’re dropping over for a strike. That’s been a little bit of his problem—being inconsistent with his breaking pitch so he becomes a one-pitch pitcher. But when he can locate a second pitch, you can’t cheat to the fastball. Credit him for locking in and concentrating and delivering what I think is one of the better pitching performances I’ve seen in a long time.

The Sun Devils caught a break from the onset when UCLA’s originally penciled-in starter, Griffin Canning, was scratched due to back spasms. The Bruins are 11-0 when Canning takes the bump, and before today, were 9-1 on Sundays.

Still, the Sun Devils had trouble mustering solid contact off lefty Hunter Virant—a former West Coast League top prospect—for much of his outing.

Virant ultimately went 4 1/3 innings, allowing three hits and one run—a run that came on Sewald’s first hit of the afternoon after Virant had departed.

Adding the aforementioned RBI double in the seventh, which gave ASU a 2-0 lead, Sewald now sports a cool .533 (16-for-his-last-30) over his last eight games.

“Just seemed like every time you looked up he was on base,” coach Smith said in regards to Sewald’s scorching series’ against Cal and UCLA. “When he’s on base we’re a different team. He’s the one guy in our lineup who can steal, make things happen, put some pressure on the defense. He has given us good at-bats all year. He was really huge for us this weekend.”

A nice rebound from two arduous losses to start the three-game set, the series-ending win for ASU extends its 30-win season streak to 53 straight years, and more importantly, instills hope for the final eight games.

“We didn’t like the loss and I can’t say that enough, but everyone felt good about playing the game,” Smith said. “It was a long game, a tough game, we came up on the wrong side of it, but we had fun playing the baseball game. Fun is being locked in, maximum concentration, walking off the baseball field knowing we left nothing to chance. Last night, we did that. I thought we did that again today. Let’s get this monkey off our back. We’ve had a tough go of some things here in conference play where it seems like just everything was going against us. Back on the winning track, we need to get a little bit of momentum going into next weekend.”

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