Arizona State head coach Tracy Smith has tried to see the best in a lot of his team. When they struggled early in the season, he cited youth. When they continually made errors, he said that it would come around because he’s seen it in practice.
But when talking about his bullpen, the fourth-year ASU (19-26, 11-12 Pac-12) head coach is blunt. He knows what he has.
“When you’re not good out there in innings seven, eight and nine, it’s a crapshoot,” Smith said Wednesday. “And that’s what it’s been. It’s been a crapshoot. We’ve not had any sort of consistency.”
That quote was reaffirmed Saturday night as the Devils’ bullpen combined to allow four earned runs, five hits and, worst of all, seven walks in 6 1⁄3 innings of work in a 7-3 loss to Washington (22-20, 12-8).
Going to the bullpen has been a roll of the dice for Smith this season, and on very few occasions has it worked out. Coming into its series with the Huskies, the Arizona State bullpen held a 5.54 ERA in 162 innings of work. For comparison: Washington’s bullpen came into Tempe with just a 4.20 ERA in over seven more innings (169 1⁄3).
The “crapshoot” began early for the Sun Devils on Saturday. With runners on the corners and two outs in the third, Smith — after arguing with the first-base umpire about a bang-bang play at first that would’ve completed a double play and ended the inning — made his first of many calls to the bullpen.
He opted for junior left-hander Connor Higgins. In 2017, Higgins was the anchor of ASU’s bullpen, wielding a respectable 3.92 ERA through 39 innings of work while recording 34 strikeouts. After coming back to Tempe following a 35th-round MLB Draft selection from the Texas Rangers, it seemed like he’s have the same contributions.
That has not been the case.
The first pitch he threw Saturday ended up in the rocks beyond the left-center fence at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Washington’s DH Joe Wainhouse’s three-run shot gave the Huskies a 4-0 lead and started off an outing that saw Higgins’ ERA jump to 8.14.
“Last year is last year,” Smith said of Higgins in the Omaha room that was hosting a pitcher’s meeting following his press conference. “We’re a different team if your veteran guys are preforming at a level that you’d like them to preform at.”
Smith said he came into the game with the intention of using a lot of guys in a ‘bullpen day’ of sorts, but he planned for the Devils to have the lead. In that scenario, relievers would be more into the game and he may have even thrown freshman Boyd Vander Kooi — who has been out since the middle of March with an elbow injury — out for a limited role.
Instead, five more Sun Devil relievers followed up Higgins and, although the quintet didn’t allow a hit, they managed to walk a combined seven batters and allow another run.
“It sucks the life out of the game,” Smith said of the abundance of walks. “Walks are going to happen, but not at that pace.”
Grant Schneider, Spencer Van Scoyoc, Sam Romero, Colby Davis and Chaz Montoya (in that order) each got an inning of work, and all, except Schneider, flashed command issues and showed why the unit has had so much inconsistency this season.
Smith was asked Wednesday if the unit’s struggles were due to a lack of effort. He waited a moment before brushing off that notion, but offered an odd comparison in response.
“If I gave you a basketball and said go dunk,” Smith said to a reporter who acknowledged he didn’t play basketball. “You could try all day long but you can’t do it. You’re trying but you’ve got to be able to do it.”
If you couldn’t tell by the quote, Smith’s confidence in the unit is staggeringly low. As he looks to his right each night, staring down at the ASU bullpen that sits adjacent to the first-base foul line, he’s tasked with choosing from a plethora of guys — each inconsistent in their own way.
“Right now we’ve probably three or four guys that you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get,” Smith said. “It’s been inconsistent.
“It’s tough because it teases you. Sometimes you’ll get (them at a level that can help the team win) and it shows flashes so you’re feeling pretty good the next move.”
The outlook for ASU’s bullpen this season is solidified: Their inconsistency has turned them into a bad unit. Smith understands that. He also knows that it needs to improve moving forward.
ASU’s skipper said he is looking for “a core of 8 to 10 guys that you know what you’re going to get.” To get there, though, Smith said the Devils will look for improvements through two avenues: Development and recruiting.
“There are some guys that are certainly capable of preforming better than they are right now,” Smith said. “But also, every year you recruit you try and add certainly more depth, but quality to what you’re doing.
“Our glaring, glaring issues have been the consistency, or lack of consistency, on the mound. So, we’re going to fix that.”