ASU baseball coach Tracy Smith discusses the player departures and program direction in his third season after Saturday’s game. Jeff Metcalfe/azcentral sports

Arizona State baseball is in territory unfamiliar to multiple generations of fans.

A losing season can seem unimaginable when there’s only been one in school NCAA history dating back to 1959. What routinely happens elsewhere is deemed unacceptable for ASU – a high standard similar to, say, Alabama football or Duke basketball.

Even with a 9-6 win over No. 14 Stanford on Sunday, the Sun Devils are 20-24 and must finish 8-3 to avoid their first losing season in 32 years (not including 2007 when ASU vacated 44 wins due to NCAA sanctions). Their chances of a 55th consecutive 30-win season are almost extinguished, requiring a 10-1 record to close out the next three weeks.

“I know Arizona State has never been through something like this,” third-year coach Tracy Smith said. “But I’ve been through something like this. Losing magnifies everything.”

For Smith to have built winning programs at Miami (Ohio) and Indiana, where he was national Coach of the Year in 2013, remains assurance to ASU Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson that given time, he will do the same here.

Anderson, who played college baseball at Stanford, stood firmly behind Smith during a tumultuous weekend in which starting center fielder Andrew Shaps was dismissed, three others left the team on their own and another player’s season came to an early end because of injury.

“Our head coach is doing everything the right way and has this program on the correct trajectory,” Anderson said. “We expected rough spots, and those are occurring. We are going to continue to navigate our way through to a very bright future with Tracy as our head coach.”

Judging from the boos at Phoenix Municipal Stadium when Smith came to the mound early in Saturday’s game – ASU fell behind 11-0 and lost 13-8 – it’s going to take significantly more convincing that Anderson’s hire of Smith to replace Tim Esmay in June 2014 will pay off with a return to the College World Series.

The Sun Devils last made it to Omaha for the CWS in 2010. Their seven-year absence including this season is the longest in school history. Smith is ASU’s third coach since 2009, a stretch that includes part of a lengthy NCAA investigation and penalty appeal with subsequent recruiting restrictions that impacted Esmay and to some degree are still being felt this season because of what was left when Smith arrived.

“When I took the job, I said 2017 is going to be the year when we thought a dip might happen,” Smith said. “But if you make an extra pitch here or we’re not replacing a pitching coach in the middle of the season, maybe we win a few more games. I have to own that and take that as my responsibility.”

ASU’s current freshman class, rated No. 1 nationally even after major-league draft losses, is the first brought in during a full recruiting cycle by Smith. Lyle Lin, Carter Aldrete and Hunter Bishop are living up to their incoming credentials as position players, as well as Chaz Montoya on the mound. Sam Ferri and Spencer Van Scoyoc could develop into contributors from the 2016 class. Twelve signed in November in the 2017 class, ranked No. 11 by Perfect Game.

“Recruiting cycles in baseball are 2-3 years out when you’re talking about the elite players,” Smith said. “I think we did a pretty good job landing the No. 1 recruiting class, and we’re going to continue to build on that. I would just say let this play out and see how it happens over the next year or so. We’re going to do our best to represent ASU in the most positive way we can. If our fans understand that, I’m very appreciative. If they don’t, I can’t worry about that. I’ve got to worry about those guys in that locker room and moving this program forward. Honestly that’s all I’m going to do.”

Smith has doubled as pitching coach this season after he decided in late December to replace Brandon Higelin, who was on Smith’s staff at Indiana in 2014 and ASU. Even Smith admits the results have been mixed at best, and ASU’s team earned run average (5.67) is lowest in the Pac-12.

“When something’s broken or not operating, the only thing I know to do is we’re going to fix it,” Smith said of what was far from ideal timing for a staff change.

Sophomore left-hander Connor Higgins pitched a career-high 7.2 innings in relief Sunday, helping to end Stanford’s nation-high, 11-game win streak.

“I know Skip’s gotten a bad rap,” Higgins said. “I like him as a pitching coach. He’s really helped me get the ball down in the zone. That’s what helped me be successful today with ground balls and getting a lazy pop-up.”

A new pitching coach could be hired before or soon after the season depending on his availability, in time for summer recruiting for the 2018 class and beyond.

With four years remaining on his contract after this season and Anderson’s backing, Smith seems likely to be at ASU for the near future. He had a 194-206 combined record in his first seven seasons at Indiana before a major breakthrough in 2013 (49-16/College World Series appearance) and 2014 (44-15).

At a recent season-ticket-holders meeting, Smith read three e-mails he received. The listeners were shocked by the “brutal, derogatory, negative” tone, said Smith, who then threw in the twist that the e-mails were written during his first three years at Indiana.

“I’ve told people a million times I didn’t come here to keep the 30-win season streak alive,” Smith said. “I didn’t come here to keep an NCAA (postseason) streak alive. I came here to win a national championship. Maybe you’ve got to take a step back to do that.

“It’s not easy when you’re going through this. One of my favorite sayings is you’ve got to stick to the game plan, and panic is not part of the game plan. I feel very confident in the plan. The plan works.”

Cal softball 3, ASU 0

No. 22 Arizona State softball lost 3-0 to California on Sunday in the final of a series at Farrington Stadium.

ASU won the first two games but was limited to one hit by Cal’s Zoe Conley in  game 3. Cal had just three hits but put up a run in the sixth and two in the seventh for the win.

The Sun Devils fell to 30-17, 9-12 Pac-12. They are home vs. No. 12 UCLA in a regular season-ending series starting Thursday. 

Stanford baseball 13, ASU 8

Andrew Shaps was dismissed from the Arizona State baseball team Saturday while Ryan Lillard is leaving the program on their own.

Also Jackson Willeford, a senior infielder, has ended his college career because of injury.

Shaps and Lillard are junior outfielders. 

Five players including Willeford have departed the program this week for varying reasons.

Sophomore pitchers Zach Dixon and Chris Isbell left after being told they would not be on the travel squad for the final month of the season and likely would have a limited role next season. Dixon pitched in five games this season with three starts and Isbell had four relief appearances.

Shaps was ASU’s starting center fielder in 2016 and 2017, hitting .299 this season with five home runs and 17 RBIs. He played, had three hits and homered Friday in a 7-5 loss to No. 14 Stanford. Shaps sat out the first five games for a team rules violation.

Lillard started in 21 of his 37 games this season, hitting .202. He also played Friday as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning.

Willeford, a transfer in his first season at ASU, played in 19 games with 14 starts, hitting .186. He has been out due to a hamstring injury and was not going to be on the active roster for the rest of the season. He plans to finish his degree at ASU in the fall.

The ASU athletic department issued a statement before Saturday’s game: “Sun Devil athletics thanks Andrew Shaps and Ryan Lillard for their contributions to Sun Devil baseball. The program is moving forward and investing focus and energy on the current team.”

Shaps tweeted later Saturday that he was told he was being dismissed for “failing to buy into team culture.” 

Lillard said in a statement: “Without getting into details, it was my unwavering support for, and defense of, my teammates that has lead (sic) to my premature departure.”

ASU Vice President for Athletics Ray Anderson attended Saturday’s game. He said of the player departures, “You try to assess everything fairly and intelligently, and sometimes you must accept change. We are pivoting to focus on our current team and will do a complete evaluation at the end of the season.”

Anderson said he “unequivocally” supports third-year coach Tracy Smith.

“Our head coach is doing everything the right way and has this program on the correct trajectory,” Anderson said. “We expected rough spots, and those are occurring. We are going to continue to navigate our way through to a very bright future with Tracy as our head coach.”

After a 13-8 loss Saturday, Smith said, “This time of the year after finals week you cut the roster down on guys that aren’t traveling and also you tell guys where they stand and where you see them in the future. Clearly there was one situation (Shaps). I don’t mean this in a terribly negative way, but I’m tired on dealing with it. Our focus has to be moving forward. We made a decision and we stand by it and we’re moving forward. We don’t wish any ill will on any of the kids. Tough day, but I’m very comfortable with where we’re going.”

Eight of ASU’s remaining 12 games are on the road before the season ends May 28.

“You’re going to take 27 on your roster when you travel so guys are staying back here,” Smith said. “You’re paying for these guys to just sit around so when we pare it down, you have those conversations (about the future). I typically wait until after finals week to have those, but if a kid wants to know where he stands I feel it’s my responsibility as a head coach to give you honest assessment. I’m a parent of Division I athletes. That’s all I would want is tell me where my kid stands because then you can make decisions based on that decision. There’s never a good time for that because you’re talking about an end to a career in some cases.”

Dan Dixon, whose son Zach is one of the departed players, said that “there is lots of turmoil and conflict” on the team.

“It wasn’t like this at all last year,” Dan Dixon said. “They’re letting these guys go left and right and destroying whole premise of the team.”

“If you’re not going to play, you don’t want to be there,” Dan Dixon said of his son’s option.

Rattled to some degree early by the departures, ASU fell behind 11-0 in the first 3 1/2 innings Saturday before drawing within 12-8 going into the ninth. The wind was blowing out at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and each team hit two home runs. 

ASU is 19-24, 6-14 Pac-12, and at risk of its first losing season since 1985. The Sun Devils’ nation-leading, 54-year streak of consecutive 30-win seasons will end unless they finish 11-1.

Smith is 90-70 at ASU, where his first two teams played in a NCAA regional. He was at Indiana from 2006-14 and Miami (Ohio) from 1997-2005. He led Indiana to the College World Series in 2013 when he was national Coach of the Year.

Smith has four years remaining on his ASU contract after this season, receiving one-year extensions after each of his first two seasons.

ASU softball 10, California 0 (five innings)

Ulufa Leilua had five RBIs to lead ASU softball (30-16) to a 10-0 win in five innings over California on Saturday at Tempe.

Stanford baseball 7, ASU 5

Matt Winaker broke open a close game with a three-run home run off the Phoenix Municipal Stadium scoreboard Friday night in No. 14 Stanford’s 7-5 win over Arizona State.

The Cardinal (29-12, 12-7 Pac-12) extended their nation-leading win streak to 10 games. ASU fell to 19-23, 6-13. Game 2 of the series is at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Ryan Hingst, ASU’s third pitcher, retired the first two men in the fifth then gave up singles to Brandon Wulff and Maverick Handley before Winaker’s fifth homer on the first pitch.

ASU cut into a 3-0 deficit with runs in the third on a Taylor Lane sacrifice fly and on Gage Canning’s solo homer (his fourth) to right in the fourth.

The Sun Devils added a run in the sixth on a Tyler Williams RBI single. Stanford answered in the seventh with a solo homer by designated hitter Daniel Bakst.

Zach Cerbo singled in a run for ASU in the seventh. Andrew Shaps’ solo homer to center in the eighth was his fifth.

In the ASU ninth, Hunter Bishop and Lane reached on singles but pinch hitter Ryan Lillard failed to get a bunt down and struck out. Cerbo then hit into a game-ending double play. 

“To the credit of the guys, they didn’t quit,” ASU coach Tracy Smith said of trailing all game. “You’re in the ninth inning with the go-ahead run at the plate and three cracks at it. It just didn’t happen, but I can’t fault from an offensive standpoint their effort tonight. The effort and focus was there against a very good pitching staff.”

Stanford built its early lead with single runs in each of the first three innings but left the bases loaded in the first and second.

ASU starter pitcher Eder Erives was hit hard and only worked into the second. He was replaced by Jake Godfrey, then Hingst in the third. Hinst pitched a season-high six innings (98 pitches), giving up seven hits and four earned runs. 

“The fact he (Hingst) was able to come in there and stabilize things with six innings was a definite plus,” Smith said. “The one bad inning, that’s going to happen. But for the most part, I thought he did a pretty decent job.”

Tyler Thorne (4-1) was the winning pitcher with Colton Hock earning his 13th save. Erives (0-3) took the loss.

Sophomore pitchers Zach Dixon and Chris Isbell have left ASU’s team after being told they would not be on the travel squad for the final month of the season.

ASU softball 9, California 7

ASU softball (29-16) hit three home runs in a 9-7 win over California on Friday in Tempe. Sashel Palacios led the way with three RBIs on three hits, and Dale Ryndak picked up the save as the Sun Devils held off a seventh-inning rally, limiting California to three runs. 


Stanford at Arizona State

When: 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Phoenix Municipal Stadium.

Radio: KDUS-AM (1060).

ASU: The Sun Devils (19-22, 6-12) went 1-2 last week at Oregon. They have not had a losing season since 1985 (31-35), not including 2007 when they vacated 44 wins due to NCAA sanctions. ASU has 14 games remaining. OF Gage Canning continues to be one of the national leaders in triples with seven and is hitting .348. Eli Lingos (6-3, 3.33 ERA) is tied for the Pac-12 lead in pitching starts (12). OF Andrew Shaps has reached base in 17 consecutive games, the junior’s career high.

Stanford: No. 14 Stanford (28-12, 11-7) is on a nine-game winning streak, longest in the nation, that includes Pac-12 series sweeps over Oregon and No. 19 Arizona. The Cardinal have won their last four games by one or two runs. 1B Matt Winaker is Pac-12 Player of the Week, hitting .400 last week. Stanford’s earned run average is 3.20, second best in the Pac-12. Chris Castellanos is 7-1 with a 2.62 ERA. Coach Mark Marquess is in his 41st and final season before retirement with his team having clinched his 39th winning season. 

MORE: Pac-12 baseball standings

ASU softball

ASU (28-16 overall, 7-11) vs. Cal (27-19, 3-14)

Friday, ASU vs. Cal, 5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks

Saturday, ASU vs. Cal, 5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks

Sunday, ASU vs. Cal, 3 p.m., Pac-12 Networks

MORE: Pac-12 softball standings

RELATED: No. 3 Arizona softball run-rules No. 23 ASU in series finale