Tracy Smith isn’t making it easy on his boss.
The fifth-year Arizona State baseball coach made some improvements this season, but it’s hard to tell whether it will be enough to convince ASU Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson to keep him around for another season.
ASU just wrapped up its 2019 season by being eliminated in the Baton Rouge Regional. Making it into the regional was a step up from the last two seasons, when the Sun Devils failed to make it into the postseason, but far from where Smith was supposed to take the tradition-rich program when he was hired in the summer of 2014.
The Sun Devils lost twice to Southern Mississippi to end their postseason well short of a berth in the College World Series, the understood goal of every coach who is handed the reins of a program that has won five NCAA titles.
ASU made four appearances at the CWS from 2005 to 2010, but has been enduring a long dry spell since then. It’s been eight years since the Devils have even made it as far as the super regionals.
Considering Smith’s success at his previous stops, Anderson felt he might be the guy to return the program to its glory days. Smith is a former college and professional player that was a national Coach of the Year and two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year while at Indiana. He coached the Hoosiers to consecutive Big Ten conference titles for the first time in program history.
But the lustre of those achievements is fading with time and being replaced with his struggles at ASU.
Based on the 13-12 final score, the Southern Miss win that knocked ASU out of the regional looked like it was closely-contested. But, in reality, it was a game that the Sun Devils should have won handily. They were eight runs ahead in the fifth inning and still six ahead by the seventh.
But the Golden Eagles scored seven runs in the final two innings to pull off a surprising rally that sent ASU back to Tempe. ASU starter Boyd Vander Kooi pitched 7 2/3 innings and gave up 11 hits, but had a 12-6 lead before Brady Corrigan came in as relief for the final out of the eighth inning. Vander Kooi left a couple of runners on base as he departed and SMU took advantage with a home run off Corrigan that made it 12-9.
ASU used two more relievers after Corrigan, but couldn’t stop the bleeding. The game ended on a two-out, two-RBI walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.
Over the course of the two games, the Golden Eagles scored a total of 27 runs, as if losing in the regional wasn’t enough. And that comes after the Devils finished the regular season by losing five of the last seven games.
Reaching the super regionals has been a bar too high for Smith during his five years in Tempe. His first two teams lost in the regionals and the next two didn’t even make into the postseason.
This year’s squad went 38-19, a marked improvement over the past two years when the Devils posted identical 23-32 records. That was the first time an ASU baseball team had suffered back-to-back losing seasons.
When they finished with the record-setting mark the first time, in 2017, it was the first time in 55 years an ASU baseball team had finished a season with fewer than 30 victories. It was also just the second losing season ever, and their .418 winning percentage was the lowest in program history.
The question now is…was this year’s improvement enough to bring Smith back again next year?
Reaching the super regional would certainly have helped him make a case for his return.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)