The Georgia baseball team opens their 2020 season at home in Foley Field on Valentine’s Day, Friday, Feb. 14th with a three-game series against Richmond. Expectations are high this season because the Diamond Dogs are a consensus top-ten baseball team in the preseason polls and could return to Omaha for the first time since 2008. Although the Bulldogs came up short in 2019, we are going to look at five reasons why Omaha is a realistic goal for this year’s team. Reason number two is the return of C.J. Smith from a back injury, and the versatility he brings to the team.
Smith saw his season end last April due to a back injury, and less than a year later he feels like he is ready to go next weekend. Smith played both ways in his first two seasons, but this year he will focus more on his pitching duties. If called upon though, expect him to be ready to make an impact in the batter’s box as well.
“I feel much better. I’m 100 percent and ready to get back out there,” said Smith during a preseason press conference. “I got a shot in my back earlier in the fall, and just rehabbed it out.I’ve felt much better since.”
Smith will probably be the third guy in the starting rotation behind Emerson Hancock and C.J. Smith. The Royston, Ga native was badly missed in the SEC Tournament and the Athens Regional, but all signs indicate that Smith is ready to begin a healthy campaign.
“It was definitely tough, but very eye-opening for me,” Smith said. “I kind of took it for granted, being out here with the guys, so when it gets taken away from you and you have to sit up in the stands, that’s tough.”
Last year on the mound, Smith posted a 3-3 record and 4.30 ERA in 11 appearances including nine starts for a total of 46 innings.
He certainly had some shining moments.
Smith tossed six scoreless innings with a career-high seven strikeouts in a 5-1 win over Jacksonville State. He pitched six scoreless innings with seven strikeouts against LSU but did not factor in the decision as the Bulldogs eventually won 2-0. He also defeated No. 5 Vanderbilt 8-3, pitching seven innings and allowing two runs on three hits with three strikeouts.
Smith isn’t known for his speed like Hancock or Wilcox, but he does boast a lower 90s fastball and a nice changeup that can throw batters off. Smith is a lingering 6-1, and his height adds a factor to his game according to Bulldogs’ pitching coach Sean Kenny who compares him to former Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine.
“I would agree. I think that’s a great comparison. When he needs a big fastball it’s in there, when he needs to throw a change-up, he can. When he needs to move the fastball around, he can. I think that’s a great comparison,” Kenny said. “He pitches that way. I’m not sure if he would say that, but I bet he would. He just has a mature approach to baseball.”
Last year, Smith made 25 plate appearances including 14 starts batting .252 with two doubles and two runs and 12 RBIs in 43 games with 27 starts (22-CF, 1-RF, 3-LF, 1-DH).
As a freshman, Smith was named 2nd Team Freshman All-American as a utility player by National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. That year he batted .300 with one home run and nine RBIs in 80 at-bats. He started 19 games (17-CF, 1-RF, 1-DH) and appeared in 27 as a position player with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage in 44 total chances (43 putouts, 1 assist). His first career home run came against Toledo in a 7-6 victory as he had a career day, going 4-for-5. In the series against No. 1 Florida, Smith hit .385 (5-for-13) with seven putouts and an assist.
Smith has that “it’ factor that coaches love, and this season could be a pivotal year deciding whether he can make it at the professional level or not.
Smith will more than likely be the Sunday starter as the third man in the rotation, and he seems confident going into to the season that he can get the job done.
“I’ve got the easy job,” Smith said. “They’ve got all the high expectations. I’ve just got to go out and throw strikes. And with this defense behind me, I’m not going to be lighting up the scoreboard like those guys throwing 100 mph. I’ll just go out, throw strikes, and whatever happens, happens”