College coaches across the country are anxiously waiting to see whether their spring sports seasons, suspended by the NCAA in reaction to the threat of the coronavirus, will be able to re-start.
It’s probably safe to assume that no coach has more riding on the outcome of that decision than Arizona State‘s head baseball coach, Tracy Smith.
This was looking like it might become a season of redemption for the under-achieving sixth-year coach who desperately needs a big season to help him keep his job. A really big season.
And, up until the announcement by Sun Devil Athletics on March 12 that all sports competitions would be cancelled until further notice, his 2020 squad appeared to be heading in that direction.
The Devils are 13-4 so far, but three of those four losses came in the first four days on the schedule — to perennial powers Michigan, Villanova, and Oklahoma State. Since then, they have won 11 of their last 12 games, finishing up with a three-game sweep of Fresno State.
In the final game before the cancellation, they piled up 14 hits to run away with an 8-3 rout of the Bulldogs. They had built the momentum they needed to begin Pac-12 play, which would have been March 13 against Utah.
ASU has other reasons for optimism. They have put up 17 home runs during the non-conference play, which leads the Pac-12 Conference and ranks 14th in the country.
And Smith has a roster heavy with experience after returning the entire infield, starting catcher, four pitchers, and two outfielders from a team that won 38 games last year.
One of those returning infielders is considered by many to be the top pro prospect in the country. First baseman Spencer Torkelson has been projected by Baseball America to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft.
He headlines a potent ASU offense that has outscored their opponents so far this season, 123-70, and has been shut out just once, in a 5-0 loss to Big Ten power Michigan.
There are four players currently batting above .300… Drew Swift (.365), Torkelson (.340), Trevor Hauver (.339), and Hunter Jump (.317). Hauver is enjoying a hitting streak that now includes 15-straight games and Torkelson has reached base in all 17 games.
Torkelson has collected six home runs, which puts him among the top 10 in the nation, and has a conference-leading .780 slugging percentage. The junior has also managed 15 hits, despite being walked 31 times to lead the nation in that category.
Smith has been on the hot seat for several seasons. His 2017 squad won just 23 games, the first time in 55 years that an ASU team finished a season with fewer than 30 victories, and the final 23-32 record was just the second losing season in program history. The 2018 team only made matters worse, putting up another 23-32 record to become the first ASU team to post back-to-back losing seasons.
The first two seasons under Smith, the Devils lost in the regionals and the next two they didn’t even make it into the postseason. There was improvement last year, with a 38-19 record, but that team lost again in the regionals.
That’s not acceptable for a tradition-rich program that has won four NCAA titles. The Sun Devils made four appearances at the College World Series from 2005 – 2010, but haven’t been back to Omaha since.
Smith was the National Coach of the Year in 2013, before taking the ASU job in the summer of 2014. But he has been unable to replicate the kind of success he had at Indiana where he led the Hoosiers to consecutive conference titles in his last two years there, and was twice the Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Last year was an important step forward for Smith, but it just turned the temperature down a little under his seat on the bench. But he needed a lot more success this year to be able to stay in that seat. He needed a trip to the College World Series.
But now he may not get the chance to prove he can do that. And that puts his future in Tempe in doubt once again.