Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper often tells his pitchers how much they can learn from Chris Smith, a Wichita right-hander who made 50 appearances in the major leagues between 2008-10.
Smith, though, is still learning himself. A former reliever, Smith is becoming acclimated to the starting rotation by constantly trying out-think opposing batters.
That mentality served Smith well in tight situations Wednesday, as he frequently worked out of trouble in the Wingnuts’ 10-4 win over Kansas City at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
Smith pitched seven innings, retiring the T-Bones in order in none of them. But in Kansas City’s RBI situations, Smith attacked the strike zone and was able to use the T-Bones’ eagerness against them. He allowed three runs and stranded seven baserunners.
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“In the bullpen, you don’t get that,” Smith said. “In the bullpen, you come in throwing 0-2 pitches from the get-go. As a starter, I was thinking about what I did as a kid. As you get older, you understand what the hitter is trying to do. It’s chess.”
Smith sticks to his plan regardless of how well the opposition figures it out. In fastball counts, he throws fastballs with the knowledge that if he commands the pitch, hitters won’t be able to do much damage.
In that sense, the battle between Smith and a hitter becomes less of a chess match and more of a joust, where the most powerful, but also the most opportunistic, participant comes out on top.
It’s an approach that may never earn Smith a chance at a no-hitter, because sometimes hitters guess right — like on the two solo homers he surrendered Wednesday. But getting into trouble sharpens Smith’s resolve and accelerates the next step in his psychological process.
“It’s a good slap on the back for myself to understand that I can work through some innings and minimize the damage,” Smith said. “Sometimes we make bad pitches and they go for pop-ups, or we make good pitches and they go for home runs. As long as you don’t let that bother you and snowball — just go out and start attacking guys — you’ll be more successful.”
Part of Smith’s mind game is the recognition of when to keep it simple. The Wingnuts staked him to a lead after the first inning and built it to 6-3 by the time he left the game.
Pitching with a lead allowed Smith to pitch to contact, retiring batters early in at-bats and keeping his pitch count relatively low for a pitcher who walked three and allowed 10 baserunners.
“I talk about it all year long with guys sitting over here watching,” Wingnuts manager Kevin Hooper said. “Watch him work, watch what he does. He pitched 50 games in the big leagues for a reason. I love how quick he works.… He might give up a couple runs here or there, but he’s going to keep us right in the ballgame, work quick, and try to get us back in here to hit.”
The quick innings served as momentum for Wichita’s offense, and after Smith completed his seven innings, the Wingnuts scored four in the bottom half to break it open.
Insurance runs have been a hallmark of Wichita’s season-long six-game winning streak. They added to the lead Wednesday, a day after a two-run homer in the eighth accented the four runs they scored to take the lead on Amarillo an inning before.
Every Wichita starter Wednesday scored a run except for Jared McDonald, who had three hits and drove in three runs against a Kansas City started, Connor Graham, who couldn’t match Smith in getting out of jams.
“The best thing, I think, about him, is his pace,” McDonald said. “I was looking at the clock, and it was the sixth or seventh (inning) and it was not even 9 o’clock yet. That’s huge, especially on a day like today where it’s so hot. The more time you can spend in the dugout, instead of on the field, is a plus.
|Jones cf||5||0||1||0||Khoury ss||3||1||0||0|
|Goodwin ss||4||1||1||2||Kahaullio 2b||4||2||1||0|
|Padgett 3b||4||1||1||1||Rodriguez dh||5||1||2||2|
|Nichols 1b||3||0||0||0||Ziegler 1b||3||1||0||1|
|Paramore c||4||0||0||0||Clevlen cf||3||1||0||0|
|Perez dh||4||0||1||0||Nieves 3b||3||1||2||2|
|Molina 2b||4||1||2||0||Armstrong c||3||1||1||1|
|Rivera rf||4||1||2||0||Amberson rf||4||2||2||0|
|Gathright lf||3||0||1||1||McDonald lf||4||0||3||3|
|Kansas City||100||100||101||—||4 9 0|
|Wichita||210||102||40x||—||10 11 0|
DP – Kansas City 2. LOB— Kansas City 8, Wichita 5. 2B — Rivera (1), Kahaulelio (13), Nieves (16), Armstrong (4), McDonald (16). HR– Goodwin (9), Padgett (15). SF – Goodwin (3), Armstrong (3). SB – Molina (16), Rodriguez (3), McDonald (13).
|Graham L, 0-1||6||10||9||8||4||1|
|Smith W, 5-3||7||7||3||3||3||4|
HBP — by Graham (Kahaulelio, McDonald). WP — Graham (1), Smith (4). PB – Paramore.
Umpires—Home, Mike O’Leary; first, Ben Sonntag; third, Anthony Sheets.
T— 2:26. A — NA.