OMAHA, Neb. – Just before an elimination game against North Carolina, Arizona State's Josh Spence wasn't real sure what he was doing.
The junior left-handed pitcher provided plenty of memories for the Sun Devils this season. And on Sunday against the same North Carolina team, he put together another good performance. He also threw 122 pitches.
After a tough loss to Texas and just three days rest, Spence was tired. But he wasn't spent. Arizona State coach Pat Murphy looked to him to be the one to keep the Sun Devils from heading home with a loss to the Tar Heels on Thursday.
Spence had never been in this situation before. Sure, he has started some important games in his career. Even his former little league coach, Ron Carothers, e-mailed me a story about how Josh once carried his Under 14 team to the Australian national title.
But nothing was as important as this outing against the Tar Heels. Win and the Sun Devils have an opportunity to beat Texas twice to advance to the CWS championship series. Lose, well, you know the story.
Jitters might've gotten the best of Spence before the game. But once he stepped across the white line and took the mound, it was business as usual for the lefty.
"Even with just three days rest, I just told him to go out there and do what you normally do," Arizona State catcher Carlos Ramirez said. "This is just baseball."
Spence got off to a good start and then labored in the second and fourth innings. In the dugout, the exhausted lefty was hanging his head toward the ground. He was tired but he wasn't done. He wasn't going to give up on the Sun Devils this early.
Spence proceeded to throw three more innings in shutout fashion.
"I wouldn't say that I was tired, just really got caught in the moment," Spence said. "I'm just glad the coaching staff allowed me to do my best and get through the next few innings."
Murphy was moved by Spence's performance.
"What can you say, the job Josh did. You go through life and find very few kids that make you feel as excited as he does," Murphy said. "To see him compete the way he did on three days rest was really special to say."
Spence finished his performance against North Carolina with great numbers. He struck out eight batters and allowed three earned runs and seven hits in seven innings. He also threw 126 pitches, giving him a total of 248 pitches in the CWS.
"We're starting Spence tomorrow," Murphy quipped with reporters. "Nah, not really."
The man from down under may not pitch again in Omaha, but his legacy at Arizona State this season is truly special. He found out about Arizona State in high school, was unable to get the Sun Devils to give him a hard look and was so intent to join the program he played a pair of seasons at nearby Central Arizona College. Now he has thrown two great games in the CWS.
Australia should be proud.
What's on deck
LSU believes in right-handed pitcher Anthony Ranaudo.
When the hard-throwing sophomore put together an iffy start in the CWS opener against Virginia, LSU coach Paul Mainieri said he expected Ranaudo to come out in his next start and throw a gem. After all, Mainieri believes he is tough as nails.
Against the Cavaliers, Ranaudo allowed two runs in 3 1/3 innings in what was his shortest outing of the year.
That next start is here and we'll see if history repeats itself against Arkansas. If it does, the Razorbacks and Tigers could be headed for another game on Saturday.
The last time Ranaudo pitched against Arkansas, it wasn't pretty. He struck out seven batters but allowed five runs in six innings. Not exactly an impressive performance. That outing, of course, was in Fayetteville, Ark. A little different stage here in Omaha.
While the Tigers hope Ranaudo can take care of the Razorbacks without having to throw stud right-hander Louis Coleman, Arkansas's pitching situation is in limbo after ace Dallas Keuchel threw 66 pitches in four innings of relief Wednesday against Virginia.
Keuchel certainly won't start against the Tigers, but could come in relief at some point in the game. Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn ruled out Drew Smyly pitching in Friday's game after he threw 85 pitches in 4 2/3 innings against the Cavaliers.
Arkansas likely will go with a combination that includes Brett Eibner, TJ Forrest, Mike Bolsinger and Stephen Richards.
Eibner started the first game against LSU and allowed four runs in just 1 2/3 innings. Forrest worked in relief against the Tigers and allowed three runs in four innings. Bolsinger and Richards didn't throw against LSU.
For Arkansas, the keys to the game are simple. Whoever starts for the Hogs must avoid the early exit that plagued Brett Eibner a few nights ago. The pitching staff has to rise to the occasion. It won't be easy considering they're thin. Offensively, the Hogs need to capitalize on any opportunities Ranaudo gives them. If Ranaudo lasts seven or eight innings, there's a good chance this game is in hand for LSU. Arkansas needs to chase Ranaudo from the game in the early innings.
For LSU, the keys to the game also are simple. Ranaudo has shown in the past h can respond from a poor performance. He should be jacked up for this game and a good outing means the Tigers don't have to do much offensively to get the victory. Ranaudo is the key to the game for the Tigers. But also keep an eye on the offense. The Tigers have hit with authority in the CWS. If that continues against the Hogs, they'll advance to the championship series. LSU has played an excellent brand of baseball in Omaha.
In the nightcap, Arizona State has a rematch set with Texas after the Sun Devils raced past North Carolina in the latter innings on the way to a 12-5 triumph. Arizona State started left-handed pitcher Josh Spence, so that clouds things for the ASU pitching staff entering the Texas game.
The Sun Devils will not throw Spence against the Longhorns. That opens the door for sophomore right-hander Seth Blair.
Blair pitched in a relief role against the Longhorns on Tuesday. It wasn't pretty. He allowed two runs without recording an out.
The Devils will have Mitchell Lambson, Jason Franzblau and a host of other pitchers ready to go against the Longhorns, but righty Mike Leake's availability is the biggest question mark. Leake had his first poor outing two nights ago against the 'Horns. However, he only threw 77 pitches. Arizona State coach Pat Murphy wouldn't show his hand after the win over UNC, but did say there's a good chance he'll throw in relief if he says he can pitch.
While Arizona State's pitching situation is in limbo, the Longhorns should be in good shape should they start sophomore right-handed pitcher Cole Green. There's also a chance the Longhorns decide to start fellow righty Brandon Workman.
Green started against Southern Mississippi in the CWS opener and allowed three runs and six hits in seven innings. He also struck out eight batters. The righty is 5-3 with a 3.08 ERA in 102 1/3 innings. Opponents are hitting him at a .230 clip.
For Arizona State, pitching is going to be limited. The Sun Devils need a strong start from Blair. If he can get to the sixth or seventh inning, the Devils would feel very good turning the game over to Mitchell Lambson. I'd also look for Jason Franzblau to get a few innings. Offensively, the Devils have hit the ball well at times in the first three games, but need to establish some consistency against the Longhorns. The offense may need to lead the way with red-hot Kole Calhoun.
For Texas, the key to the game is getting off to a good start. If the Longhorns get into the ASU bullpen early in the game, there's a great chance they advance to the championship series. The Longhorns haven't played well in the CWS but have found a way to record a pair of wins. Play a good brand of baseball and they should reap the benefits. Even with some question marks on the mound, the Longhorns are in good shape the rest of the way.