Bases loaded, one out.
Two on, no outs.
Name pretty much any pressure-packed, late-inning scenario and Gage Smith has gotten out of it.
“He is in control of every situation, no matter what [it is] he’s under control, he’s not intimidated, he’s not afraid,” said FSU head coach Mike Martin.
“There’s no doubt he’s a guy we want with the ball in his hand when the game’s on the line,” added pitching coach Mike Bell.
It’s a role Smith has mastered at FSU, that of the late-inning escape artist, and it’s one that the Seminoles call on him to perform often.
Consider this past weekend — with NC State in town to play a Friday night game and a double-header on Saturday — Smith worked the Seminoles out of three such situations all within 24 hours of each other.
On Friday night he induced an inning-ending double play to keep Luke Weaver’s lead in tact, on Saturday afternoon he worked 2.1 scoreless innings in relief of Brandon Leibrandt, and then in the nightcap he helped get Taylor Blatch off the hook with minimal damage during his third appearance in less than 24 hours.
For anyone else that would feel like a lot of pressure — constantly being called into action with the game hanging in the balance — but pressure doesn’t seem to phase Gage Smith.
He’s overcome a lot more in his playing career than a bases-loaded jam.
A Cruel Game
“[Gage Smith] understands the game of baseball can be cruel. It’s been cruel to him a couple of times,” said Martin. “He understands it. He knows he has to go down there and work every day to maintain and improve from where he is. This young man is… I don’t think I’ve had a guy like him.
“I know I haven’t had a guy like him.”
A Tallahassee native, Smith played his high school ball at North Florida Christian and always dreamed of one day being a Seminole. His father went to FSU, his uncle lettered in basketball at FSU, his grandparents attended FSU. In many ways Gage Smith was always destined to be a ‘Nole.
And after redshirting his freshman year at Florida State, Smith entered 2011 ready to finally realize his childhood dream and take the field as a Seminole.
But it wasn’t to be. Not yet.
“He had just been told by the pitching coach at the time, Jamey Shouppe, that he was one of the best pitchers in the Spring and he would see some playing time [possibly even in] the first game — which was that Friday, we’d had the baseball banquet on Thursday night — and I get a call that says, ‘I need to talk to you,'” said Clark. “They didn’t realize some of the rules and it was something to do with a roster spot and they were going to have to let him go.
“That’s about as upset as you’ve ever seen a kid and his parents.”
Keeping the Faith
A lot of young men would’ve given up right then. Frankly, it would have been understandable. One moment you’re staring at the prospect of making your college debut and the next that’s all been snatched away — you’re on the outside looking in.
“We were trying to get him to go play somewhere else, at least you’ve got enough time that you can do that,'” Clark remembered. “He just made up his mind that he was going to play for FSU or play for nobody, and he worked his tail off after that and he got where he is today just from hard work, period.”
Said Gage: “Honestly I was going to give up baseball, and it was honestly all a God thing for me. A week had passed since I had been cut and out of no where I felt like God just told me you’re not done with baseball, you’re not done with FSU.
“It didn’t really make sense to me at all because why would you redshirt and cut me, then bring me back? But I just worked as hard as I could, went and played baseball down in the Florida league, came back, worked out a lot, long toss, threw bullpens. I came back, and they gave me a chance. It didn’t make much sense to me, but they gave me a chance.”
Making the Most of It
Shouppe left to take the head coaching job at FAMU following the 2011 season. His replacement, Mike Bell, brought with him a different philosophy and a different approach. It didn’t take him long to see the potential in the young side-armer.
“It’s a neat story for a gentleman that grew up in Tallahassee and probably grew up watching a lot of games here at [Dick] Howser Stadium to not only achieve his dreams of making the team, but also be a key contributor,” said Bell. “He’s a guy that had to take a couple steps backwards to move forward. With that being said, he worked his tail off when things weren’t going his way, continued to develop in the summer leagues and, as you know, the experience of just competing, time after time, whether it was going through failures as well as going through successes, allowed him to mature into what you see now.”
In Smith’s first year back, in 2012, he appeared in 39 games and went 5-0 with a 2.89 ERA and recorded three saves.
Last year his ERA sunk to 2.41 through 35 appearances, as he continued to come into his own.
This year, he’s become one of the most consistent arms in a deep Florida State bullpen.
“He understands that ‘I need to make pitches, and some nights I make pitches and things don’t work out,’ but he doesn’t let a good pitch that he made turn into a base hit and go, ‘golly, I made a good pitch– I don’t know why he was able to dump it over the first baseman’s head?’ He goes back to the mound, gets the ball [and says], ‘okay, I’ve got to get this guy to hit a ground ball,’” said Martin.
“In other words, short memory. That [last at-bat is] gone, he focuses on the next hitter.”
Pitching to Contact
Part of what makes Gage Smith so effective is the sidearm slot from which he throws. After facing a starter like Luke Weaver or Brandon Leibrandt for six or seven innings, a sidearmer is tough to adjust to for most hitters.
“It’s angles, it’s deception, it’s tough for guys to see, the ball from that angle creates good movement, and, like I said, it’s just something you don’t see every day,” said Bell. “You couple that with the fact he does attack the strike zone, and he does know how to pitch, he knows how to mix his pitches, and it’s tough, it’s tough for righties and lefties.”
That Smith “knows how to pitch” is as much a testament to his maturity and work ethic as what he persevered through. And he shows wisdom beyond his years, playing to his strengths instead of trying to be something he’s not.
“A big thing for me is I used to earlier in my career, you know, I wanted to strike the guy out, stuff like that. But then I realized, I’m not a strikeout pitcher, I’m not blowing it by anybody really, so I’m just coming in, throwing strikes and letting them get themselves out, keeping the ball down in the zone and just producing ground balls,” said Smith. “That’s the big thing for me, most pitchers, they’re trying to get strikeouts, I’m just trying to see how many ground balls I can get.”
“One of the things we talked about two years ago when he made the team was, ‘is first and second with no outs going to be jam for you?’” said Bell. “And he kind of looked at me kind of crazy, and I said again, ‘is first and second with no outs going to be a jam for you? Because if it’s going to be a jam, then you’re not the guy we need you to be.’
“Because we’re looking for two ground balls and to get out of this inning, because we’re going to roll a double play. I think once he understood that and what it means to pitch to contact — what it means to expand the zone when he needs to but also pitch under control — I think you saw things start to blossom.”
Now a redshirt senior, Smith has blossomed into the Seminoles’ most reliable bullpen arm — an asset in pressure-packed, game-deciding moments.
But when he’s entering a game, pressure is the last thing on the right-hander’s mind. He lets his parents worry about the pressure.
“Thank the good lord that he’s not like I am or his mom, because I can tell you that that’s his scenario, when he comes in is in those pressure-packed situations and it drives us nuts,” said Clark. “But Gage would much rather pitch in those situations than with a seven or eight run lead.”
Frankly, Gage is just happy to be pitching.
Even when it’s three times in 24 hours.
“That was pretty exciting, I think that’s the most I’ve pitched in a 24-hour span,” said Smith. “But that’s one of the perks of throwing down under: my arm doesn’t get tired. And I want to play every game if it’s possible, so I love it.”
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