Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper might have wanted a longer look at starting pitcher Chris Smith on Sunday afternoon, but Smith’s success made that impossible.
Smith’s 114 pitches took him out of the Wingnuts’ 4-1 win over Lincoln with two outs in the seventh inning. His pitch count escalated because he struck out a season-high 12 batters.
Smith couldn’t avoid that, either. Any designs he had on pitching to contact were eliminated as Lincoln failed to put any of them in play. Smith worked both sides of the plate and threw any of his three pitches for strikes at any count.
So while Smith’s outing may have ended too early for someone pitching so well, he probably couldn’t have made a stronger or more lasting impression.
“We had the right guy going to end a little two-game skid,” Hooper said. “Phenomenal. That’s about all I can say about it, he’s been phenomenal all year. Love him, love having him around both on the field and off.”
Smith struck out two in each of the first four innings but didn’t completely avoid trouble. He hit the first batter of the second and fourth innings, and a runner reached scoring position in both.
Those situations only strengthened Smith’s resolve, though. He pitched to eight batters with a runner on base and struck out six. He struck out the side in the fourth after allowing the first two hitters to reach base.
The only batter to get to third against Smith was Yasel Gomez, who led off the fifth with a home run. The fifth was the only inning in which Smith didn’t strike out a batter, but he struck out two in the sixth and two before he was removed in the seventh.
“With runners on, you pay more attention to what’s going on and making your pitches,” Smith said. “You know you’re adding up pitches, so you’re playing chess with the (batter). Limit your pitches here and get him out, but also you have a game plan you’re sticking to.
“Over and over, it seemed like I was battling with 3-2 or 2-2 counts. I finally finished them off, but it was a lot of pitches I racked up.
Though Smith pitched with runners on base in two of his seven innings, his outing was more stressful than it appeared. Not only was he pitching in 90-degree heat, but the mental capacity it takes to constantly pitch with two strikes on the batter took its toll on Smith.
The evolution of Smith transitioning from a reliever who reached the major leagues to a pitcher trying to make it back as a starter. He could overpower hitters early with a fastball that reached 94 mph, but as his velocity dropped later, Smith had to be more cerebral.
He started hitters with breaking pitches and began working corners more effectively, eventually reaching five called strikeouts. Operating on fumes in the seventh, Smith walked the final batter he faced. It forced him out of the game but allowed him to earn an ovation from the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium crowd.
“It was tough, man, I was pretty exhausted,” Smith said. “(Hooper) pulled the hook. There was not even a question. He went and got the ball and that was it.”
Every pitch Smith made Sunday was with the lead, as the Wingnuts scored two in the first by starting with four consecutive hits.
Smith’s excellence was important because Lincoln starter Mike Burns, himself a former big leaguer, settled down to retire 11 in a row before Madison Beaird doubled to start the fifth.
Beaird was the key in two run-scoring innings. He scored on Jake Kahaulelio’s sacrifice fly and, after a one-out triple in the seventh, came in on Jared McDonald’s fly ball to center field.
“Burns, he’s not a dumb pitcher,” Kahaulelio said. “He pays attention, that’s probably why he was in the big leagues. He sees our strengths, sees our weaknesses and capitalizes on them. For a couple innings, he was pitching us how we don’t like to be pitched. But we talked in the dugout that we’ve got to figure it out.”
|Coles cf||4||0||0||0||Khoury ss||4||1||1||0|
|Espinosa 2b||3||0||0||0||Kahaulelio 2b||3||1||1||2|
|Smith 3b||4||0||1||0||Rodriguez dh||4||0||1||0|
|Gac 1b||3||0||0||0||Ziegler 1b||4||0||2||1|
|Douglas rf||3||0||1||0||Clevlen cf||4||0||0||0|
|Forgatch lf||4||0||1||0||Armstrong c||3||0||0||0|
|Wuest dh||4||0||0||0||Nieves 3b||3||0||0||0|
|O‘Connell c||4||0||0||0||Beaird rf||3||2||2||0|
|Gomex ss||2||1||1||1||McDonald lf||2||0||1||1|
E— Gomez (12), Khoury (12). LOB— Lincoln 7, Wichita 4. 2B— Forgatch (9), Ziegler (20), Beaird (1). 3B—Beaird (1). HR — Gomez (3). SB — Forgatch (20), Kahaulelio (8), Armstrong (1).
Umpires—Home, Brent Bellou; First Base, Joe Pascucci; Third base, PJ Krauss.
T— 2:24. A— 2,261.