“I know it sounds crazy, but I’ll sleep pretty well tonight.”
Arizona State head coach Tracy Smith’s approach to baseball is comprehensive of the fact final results won’t always go your way—even when everything else does.
His Sun Devils’ 3-2 loss to Loyola Marymount on Saturday night—a game they came one out away from winning—is a perfect example.
“It’s baseball,” Smith said. “I’ve been on the other side too, when it seems like a baseball game is all but over, and it just takes a little thing, and something happens.”
ASU left-hander Reagan Todd had LMU second baseman Paul Caulfield facing an 0-2 count with the tying run 90 feet away in the top of the ninth. The Sun Devils led 2-1 before the lead-off man drove a pitch deep into right center, out of the reach of Gage Canning, down to the wall for a game-tying RBI triple. Four pitches later, shortstop Nick Sogard drilled a single into right field, plating Caulfield, and pitting ASU behind 3-2.
On Friday night, ASU had been on the right side of a one-run victory. On Saturday, the tables were turned, dropping the Maroon & Gold to 6-4 overall and 3-1 in games decided by two runs or fewer this season.
“I said the same thing could’ve happened last night,” Smith said. “We were lucky last night. We weren’t as lucky tonight.”
The Sun Devils’ pitching staff combined to relinquish just nine total hits, and the defense played its first error-free game in its last six contests.
But while the box score indicated one thing, according to Smith, the game wasn’t lost in the ninth inning. It was lost earlier in the contest, when ASU failed to scratch across more runs despite having players in scoring position.
“That game was lost in our inability to extend the lead early in the game, and we had multiple chances with runners in scoring position, or runners on third base and less than two outs and not scoring those guys,” Smith said. “That stuff that happens in the ninth, that’s gonna happen. But if we did a better job of extending the lead earlier in the game...”
The Sun Devils batted 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position during the loss, attesting to several missed opportunities to extend their lead.
After going ahead 1-0 in the first inning, ASU was unable to score a runner from third with just one out. During the second inning, the Sun Devil offense had a runner on second with no outs, but stranded him. In the sixth inning, men were aboard second and third with two outs, but the Sun Devils came away empty then, too.
Smith said his team has to “do a better job of extending the lead and cut the selfish at-bats down.”
“Put a baseball to play to score a run,” he said. “If we do that, that stuff doesn’t matter. They can get their two runs in the ninth, and (we) can still win.
“If we do the little things of baseball well, which is what our focus is—It’s moving runners, it’s cutting your swing down when the infield’s back and they’re giving you a run. It’s having that maturity and growing up and maturing as a baseball player to know that ‘I don’t need a base-hit here, I just need to put a baseball in play.’ What we’re looking for is that growth as a team in a series like this against a good opponent.”
Smith is still in the process of outlining his day-to-day roster. Early-season injuries and tinkering hasn’t allowed the lineup to fully come together, but the third-year coach said he knows what he’s looking for, particularly at the plate.
“Who’s gonna give a consistent at-bat,” he says. “Who’s gonna move runners, and do the little things. I’m looking at how are we playing, how are we gonna be. We were playing good baseball for the most part tonight.”
While Smith acknowledges his team played well enough to probably earn the result, the moral victory still isn’t necessarily suffice.
“I don’t know if there’s ever a good loss. (Tonight’s) probably a bit more heartbreaking because of how it happened,” he said, “but it’s still a loss. It’s baseball. You’ve gotta get the hits at the right time, and the plays at the right time.
“We dodged some bullets last night; we weren’t lucky tonight.”
Smith doesn’t have any intention of allowing Saturday’s collapse to fester. Instead, he says, his team will return to field tomorrow, ready to play and “compete like heck” to claim the series finale.
“If you play good defense—which we did tonight—and you pitch the baseball, you’re gonna be on the winning side of the ledger often than not,” he said. “It’s a heart-breaking, terrible loss. I wish it didn’t happen, but what I’m gonna focus on tomorrow is do we come out and try to improve on some of the things that we didn’t do tonight.”