April 17, 2015
Ryan Smoyer admits to a few minutes of excitement when he found out he would be the University of Notre Dame's starting pitcher April 11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball series opener against No. 7 Florida State.
"I called my parents right away and told them," said Smoyer, who was informed of the critical start on the Monday before the game. "I called my high school coach, and I called my summer coaches. I called all the guys who got me here. They were excited, and I was excited.
"It was a pretty good moment, but that quickly changed to, 'All right. What do I have to do to get ready? What's my schedule going to be for this week to get ready?' Once it sunk it, it was all business getting ready for the weekend."
Smoyer's focus and commitment to preparation paid off for the Irish, who needed him to step in for regular Friday starter Scott Kerrigan, who was sidelined by arm trouble. Smoyer set the tone for an historic sweep of the Seminoles, which marked the first series victory against a top-10 team since a best-of-three win at No. 1 Florida State in the 2002 NCAA Super Regionals propelled the Irish to their second College World Series.
"For Ryan to come out and have the outing that he did against Florida State . . . I'm not sure that you can overstate that," Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki said. "It was really big.
"Even from the time he first stepped on campus, he's been an incredibly steady personality," Aoki said of Smoyer being able to handle a major challenge. "He doesn't go up and down. He doesn't go crazy when something is going well, and he doesn't get too low. He's a really steady personality."
Against Florida State, the 6-foot-4, 207-pound sophomore right-hander gave up a two-run homer early that put the Irish in a hole. After that, it was all business.
Smoyer retired the next nine batters in a row, didn't allow a Seminoles' base-runner to get past second and worked seven innings as the Irish went on to a 5-2 victory.
Steadiness in being able to battle through adversity has been a Smoyer trademark.
In his first five games this season, Smoyer worked 5.2 innings, and had an earned-run average of 7.94. He gave up five earned runs and 10 hits, allowing four walks and striking out three.
In his last five games, Smoyer is 5-0 with a 1.50 ERA. In his last 30 innings, he has struck out 17 and walked four.
Last season, Smoyer had a team-worst 15.43 ERA in his first five outings (4.2 innings), but in his last six appearances he had a 0.61 ERA over 14.2 innings.
Irish pitching coach Chuck Ristano said Smoyer has the steely mindset to make sure adversity doesn't snowball.
"Sometimes, when a pitcher gets hit, he pitches with fear of contact or the strike zone," Ristano said. "All of the sudden, a pitcher's walk numbers go up or he starts running into bad counts, especially against quality competition.
"As a credit to Ryan's maturity and development as a pitcher, he continued to try and execute his plan. As the season went on, his execution has gotten better and better."
Ristano said Smoyer's ability to treat a midweek start against a mid-major, a marquee start against a national power or a middle relief appearance with the same demeanor is a foundation that can help the Irish build toward post-season success.
"It absolutely starts with personality," Ristano said of Smoyer's emergence this season. "The way somebody goes about his business dictates not only what you hope their success is, but the opportunities you give them. In a lot of ways, we're trusting the personality as much as we're trusting his pitches. I think Ryan has really good pitches, but what he brings to the table is a certain confidence, and his preparation is what he's derived his confidence from.
"When he had a couple of tough outings to start the year, he was able to lean back to the fact that his preparation is flawless. That's enabled him to string together the streak that he has now."
"There was no difference in his approach before the Florida State game. What makes Ryan such a special kid is that regardless of the opponent he's competing against the game, and all he's trying to do is execute his pitches. That's why I think he's had success, because his process is so strong."
Aoki said he wasn't surprised when Smoyer stepped in against Florida State and handcuffed the Seminoles. Smoyer built on his strong finish last summer in the Northwoods League, when he ended up being named the league's top prospect in addition to earning co-pitcher of the year honors.
"I gained a lot of confidence having a good summer," Smoyer said. "I faced a lot of hitters from a lot of good schools."
The Bowling Green, Ohio, native was also helped by Fighting Irish catcher Ryan Lidge, who was on the Kalamazoo Growlers summer team with Smoyer. Lidge worked hard to build confidence and trust with Smoyer, which has surfaced in a big way this season. Lidge said Smoyer has matured from last season.
"I think Ryan has done a really good job of slowing the game down," Lidge said. "It was the same thing with me. It's a freshman learning experience. You worry about the result and not the process. He would rush through pitches, rush through innings. This year, we really focused on going pitch by pitch. He's really owning that thought process.
"A lot of pitchers try to rely on velocity," Lidge added. "Ryan, in his maturing process, has realized, 'If I locate, if I can command my fastball, then I can use my slider, my curveball, my change-up off my fastball.' He'll get hitters off of their timing because pitching is just timing. That's what it is. Hitting is timing. Once you get hitters off of their timing, you get them on their front foot, maybe get them on their backside, you can come in with your fastball. He's really realized that."
Smoyer said his teammates deserve the credit for his success this season.
"As the team has played better, I pitched better," Smoyer said. "I relied on them more. The trust within each other not only helped me, but also the entire team. That's probably the main thing, the confidence I gained from how well my teammates are playing helped me, and I think it's helped them raise their games. Defensively, we're playing a ton better than we did last year. Throughout the entire season the entire team has raised its game. It's showing out on the field."
Trust is one of the key pillars in the Irish foundation.
"Our team has been doing a great job of picking guys up when they're having a tough time," Smoyer said. "The team bond, the chemistry we've tried to create is paying huge dividends for everybody. That's what I leaned on the most when stuff wasn't going my way. Guys would pull me aside and say, 'Hey, Ryan. You're pitching great. Stay confident.' Just to hear that from somebody else is big."
Aoki said another reason for Smoyer's potential to be a difference-maker in the ACC is his dedication to learn.
"In this day and age especially, he's a very astute student of the game," Aoki said of Smoyer. "He watches baseball. It's not like what kids watch now, highlight packages, Quick Pitch, those things where you only see the home run or the great play. He really watches baseball and asks questions. He has insight into the game of a kid who probably played 15 or 20 years ago, where we did actually watch baseball and had more instinct for it. I think that has helped his learning curve."
Aoki also said Smoyer made a tremendous effort to iron out his delivery.
"Ryan had a little bit of a stab on the back of his arm stroke," Aoki said. "He's worked to sort of smooth that out, which is really pretty amazing, because there are not a lot of kids who are able to really truly effectively change their arm action. He smoothed it out some, so that's helped. I also think the experience and the success he had during the course of the summer kind of validated the fact that, 'I can do this, and I can do it at a high level.'"
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent