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Riley Smith finding his groove in return to Cougars' rotation

Kids will head into their backyard to play catch with a friend or their father and dream that they’re pitching in Game 7 of the World Series and only need to get one out to bring home the championship.

It’s a similar approach that Riley Smith has taken professionally, especially as he transitioned back from the bullpen to the starting rotation for the Kane County Cougars in August.

“Every batter is the last out of the World Series and you have to win it,” he said. “I take that into account with every hitter I face.”

The right-hander has been impressive in his return to the Cougars, where he pitched in relief earlier this season. In six August appearances, all starts, Smith went 3-1 and pitched to a 2.11 earned run average, striking out 33 batters and allowing just 36 hits over 38 1/3 innings.

Smith made eight starts for Hillsboro in the Class A Short Season Northwest League in Oregon, going 4-3 with a 3.06 ERA.

Smith's last start was arguably his best with the Cougars. On Aug. 30 at Clinton he threw seven innings of shutout ball, striking out eight with five hits and zero walks in the Cougars' 5-0 win.

He’s pitched six innings or better in five of six starts since returning to Kane County. His only loss, on Aug. 20 against Burlington, Smith allowed five runs on nine hits in a loss to Burlington.

“It’s been good so far, but there are days like (Aug. 20) when you throw a solid five innings and then something comes and kind of bites you,” he said. “It’s humbling to play in games like this.”

Smith’s progression has been a solid one. It was only a few years ago that he was earning NJCAA All-America and All-Region honors at San Jacinto North College and then spending a year at Louisiana State before being drafted in the 24th round by Arizona in 2016.

“Everybody wants to break camp at the beginning of the year and when I didn’t, I was a little bummed out,” he said. “Hillsboro was good. I proved myself and I deserve to be here. I’m excited to be here and we’ll see where it takes me.”

He especially likes that it’s taken him into a starting role in the rotation and a routine he knows so well.

“Being here in April as a reliever I know what that’s like,”he said. “Routine is everything as a starting pitcher, and even as a reliever you have your routines, but it’s different. In college I was always a starter so I’m kind of getting back into that groove.”

Now that the dog days have arrived, many players are battling fatigue as they acclimate themselves to a full baseball season, something that you just don’t have in college where you don’t play nearly as often, or as long.

“Even when you’re getting tired you still have to pitch the ball and make sure you keep everything down because when you’re tired that drops your velo. But if you can maintain location you can still be fine,” Smith said. “The longer the season goes the more tired you get and we’ve been pitching since February and now it’s August. Physically we’re half of what wewere now than what we were in February.

“Now people’s minds start to wander about getting home, but we still have a championship to win so we need to muscle through, make sure we’re doing everything we can physically and mentally and get back into the groove.”

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