Arizona State head coach Tracy Smith tends to be realistic with his expectations.
After fielding what’s considered by some to be 2017’s top national signing class and a near-College World Series run by in-state rival Arizona, desire for success out of the Maroon & Gold’s fan base couldn’t be higher.
The progress to this point has been slow.
A 13-4 thumping at the hands of No. 7 Cal State Fullerton on Wednesday saw the Sun Devils to their fourth straight loss, dropping them below .500 for the first time this season. The third-year coach acknowledged the apparent: his group has hit “a rough patch.”
“Now that’s the challenge we have, because I’m not losing confidence in this group,” Smith said. “We’ve got a very, very young group. Our challenge over the next few days is making sure we don’t get lost in all the noise. I’m sure people will say, ‘well what’s wrong with the season? The season is canceled.’ We don’t look at it that way at all.”
Smith isn’t wrong to think this way either. Last season, his Sun Devils opened conference play with an abysmal five-game losing streak, before going 21-14 down the stretch of the year. He said he’d be lying if thoughts of last year’s turnaround weren’t on his mind at this stage in the season, but he’s more concerned with maintaining a level head.
“You don’t wanna panic,” he said. “We’re not gonna panic early. We’re a good baseball team. We were a good baseball team five games ago, so a four-game stretch is not going to change the perception of that.”
To this point, Smith has remained publicly even-keeled. He says he understands what needs to improve: most notably, consistency on the mound and maturity at the plate. What he wants those watching from the outside to comprehend—wins and losses are, sure, a part of baseball, but that doesn’t mean he’s ever satisfied when the result doesn’t go his way, just as it hasn’t for the last four contests.
“We’re not satisfied with that, we’re not happy with the loss,” Smith said. “I don’t expect people to be rejoicing in that, but a baseball mind says, ‘you know what? We had a little bit of a challenge this midweek. We’ve gotta get it right on the weekend and build from there.’”
It doesn’t get any easier for the Sun Devils. During the non-conference slate, they’ve had to face the No. 1 rated team in the nation, along with a slew of other ranked and talented opponents, while dealing with several injuries, not to mention having to overcome the inexperience of 22 rostered underclassmen.
Upcoming series against Long Beach State and Oregon State don’t make the challenge simpler, but 13 games into the campaign, Smith says there’s plenty of baseball left to make it work with a young talented team.
A key to working through funks akin to the one ASU is currently battling through is the leadership of the upperclassmen. For a program accustomed to rolling out lineups featuring around at least five underclassmen each game, this is a commodity.
“They’re not panicking at all really,” said freshman pitcher Tanner West, who tossed 3 1/3 scoreless innings Wednesday, of his veteran teammates. “They’re taking the underclassmen and guys who are a little panicking, They’re taking them under their wing, just calming them down, and bringing everyone closer together.”
West’s cool demeanor – both on the mound and in the clubhouse – embodies the type of mentality Smith said he wants to see in regards to effort, fight and maturity out of his younger players.
“We addressed this as a team—A loss is a loss, but it was a bad loss just because maybe some internal things and how we were handling a little bit of a bad stretch. Now whether that’s our immaturity, whether that’s not experiencing something like this before—whatever the case is—I can tell you, you go tonight and you’re down 13-4, but our guys, they were battling and pulling for each other all the way through,” he said.
West said pulling out of the Sun Devils’ poor run of form “shouldn’t be too hard.”
“The vibe’s really good in the clubhouse, for now, we’re just having one of those rough patches,” West said. “The team’s coming together, everyone’s working, everyone’s got each other’s backs. It shouldn’t be too hard at all. Just trying to get through it, I think it’s gonna happen.”
“If you do that over a 50-game schedule, and do it consistently with some talent, you’re gonna be O.K.,” Smith said. “When you have games like this — and you don’t like to have them — but when you have them, you’re looking for who’s leading, who’s still doing it, who’s still staying consistent, who’s still staying with the process. Those are the things you want to come out. Tonight, it’s a loss. I’m sick to my stomach about it, but I’ll tell you when I’m going home tonight, I’ll feel a little bit better about our effort and how guys managed that loss as a young team.”