(Photo: Dominic Cotroneo/WCSN)
College baseball coaches rarely want to rely too much on inexperienced freshmen to fill key roles in their lineup, but Tracy Smith does not have much of a choice heading into the 2016 season. Most notably, the open outfield spots, with perhaps the exception of left field, appear as though freshmen and sophomores will fill them.
Perhaps it was because the environment ensured immediate playing time, but one freshman appears to be playing beyond his class title.
Gage Canning out of Ramona, California, has caught Smith’s eye starting with fall ball and continuing into spring practices. The team is not depending on Canning to be an offensive force from the get-go since the likes of David Greer, Colby Woodmansee and Brian Serven are returning, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of being one.
“He’s been very consistent defensively, he’s swinging the bat really well, he has one of the best if not the best arm in the outfield,” Smith said. “It’s all about consistency in this game and that’s what he’s done better than the other guys.”
The transition from high school to college is hard for all players, but certain ones have the mindset of taking it all in stride and continuing to play the way that got them to the next level in the first place. Canning is trying to follow that mindset in every way possible and not pay attention to the speculation around him.
“It’s definitely a change coming from high school and into college. The game changes as far as the competition level, the hours you put in every week,” Canning said. “It’s never a guarantee so you always just got to keep working. I never had it in my mind that I’m starting or not. I’m just working as best I can to be a starter.”
Should Smith select Canning for one of the starting spots, Canning may be able to make an impact offensively quicker than most because of the skills he possess, most notably being a speed threat on the base paths, and likely having a spot at the top of the lineup in front of guys like Woodmansee and Serven.
That role was executed beautifully in 2015 by then-junior Johnny Sewald, who left school after being drafted in the 14th round of the MLB Draft by Houston. Sewald stole 21 bases in 2015, along with posting a .436 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot.
Smith sees Canning as having all the tools necessary to fill Sewald’s shoes effectively at some point, as Canning himself stole 54 bases in his high school career.
“Well the beauty of what Johnny did is he gave you great at-bats, leadoff mentality at-bats, and I think some of that came with his experience,” Smith said. “So Gage certainly has that ability, and his speed is equal to Johnny’s speed, but he’s just lacking experience, he’s a freshman. So to get those quality at-bats, the walks and all that stuff that Johnny did so well for us last year, I think is going to take a little time for Gage.”
The outfield trio as a whole this season will have a lot to live up to, replacing Sewald, as well as Trever Allen and Jake Peevyhouse. All three were very productive outfielders in their ASU careers, but Canning isn’t focused on replacing those players. He’s only set on being the best Gage Canning possible.
“I’m hoping I can come out here and just show who I am as far as baseball and outside of baseball as well, just how I am as a person,” Canning said. “But I’m trying to do the best I can this year.”
Senior third baseman Jordan Aboites sees a lot of positives in Canning, most notably his willingness to go the extra mile to have success.
“He listens really well which is big because guys coming in haven’t had the experience that some of the older guys have. He’s been really like a sponge, just kind of soaking everything in from the older guys and he’s been really great,” Aboites said. “I think he definitely has a great chance to impact this team this year.”