For over a month, between the time he was sent back to the minors and called back up to the Dodgers on Friday, catching prospect Will Smith loomed large in Los Angeles. While he continued mashing triple-A pitching in Oklahoma City, building a resume that was impossible to ignore, the Dodgers’ catchers continued posting inadequate offensive production. It was simply a matter of time before Smith returned.
The Dodgers finally made the move Thursday to replace the struggling Austin Barnes, believing Smith was ready to assume the primary catching role after his sustained prolific production in the Pacific Coast League. It would not take much to provide an upgrade. Barnes was one of the worst offensive players in the majors this season. Smith carried potential and represented a boost.
The rookie did not waste any time. In his first game back Saturday, Smith went three for three with an opposite-field home run, two doubles, a sacrifice fly and six runs batted in to fuel the Dodgers to a 9-3 win over the Washington Nationals.
“He’s got what you need to be a catcher in the big leagues,” Dodgers right fielder Cody Bellinger said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Just a few months ago, before he began lighting up pitching in the Pacific Coast League, the Dodgers wondered if Smith could consistently produce at the plate. They saw him as a plus defender and a good game-caller, but his swing was long and he struck out too much for their liking. After implementing mechanical adjustments during the offseason, he has ridden a breakout season to the top of the Dodgers’ depth chart.
“It’s reassuring to me to know they have that confidence in me, to know I’m going to be able to go back there most nights,” Smith said.
Max Muncy and Corey Seager each contributed two hits to propel a surge in support of Clayton Kershaw, who held the Nationals to two runs over six innings after a tumultuous first frame. The combination gave the Nationals, previously on a tear, their first three-game losing streak since mid-May. The Dodgers will go for the sweep Sunday.
The Dodgers pounced after left-hander Matt Grace recorded two scoreless innings as the Nationals’ opener and exited. Smith provided the Dodgers’ first run in the third inning with a solo home run to right field off right-hander Joe Ross in his first plate appearance since returning to the big leagues.
A Dodgers catcher hadn’t homered since Smith’s walk-off three-run blast against the Colorado Rockies on June 23 before he was sent back down to triple A. It was Smith’s 24th home run this season between the minors and majors. It was his fourth with the Dodgers (69-37) in 30 plate appearances. Barnes and Russell Martin, the Dodgers’ other catcher, have combined for seven in 406 plate appearances.
“We haven’t seen him a lot up here, but from what we’ve seen and what we’ve learned from him and how he’s performed in triple A and just watching his swing and demeanor, it’s real,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.
Smith added a sacrifice fly in the Dodgers’ three-run fourth inning and a two-out RBI double in the sixth to extend the Dodgers’ lead to 5-2. He completed his outburst in the seventh inning with a bases-clearing double off right-hander Javy Guerra to become the first Dodgers rookie with at least six RBIs in a game since James Loney tallied a franchise-record-tying nine in September 2006. He is the third rookie catcher in franchise history to have six RBIs in game. He emerged with a .345 batting average and 1.256 OPS in 10 games for the Dodgers this season.
Kershaw entered his 18th start Saturday with a 2.84 ERA. He has spent the season successfully navigating through lineups with a reconfigured approach spawned by the limitations extreme mileage imposes on his arm. But the first inning has consistently troubled him. The left-hander carried a 5.82 ERA and .873 OPS against in the first inning this season going into Saturday’s outing. Both numbers were Kershaw’s worst in any inning. They got worse Saturday.
Trea Turner led off with a single before Adam Eaton tripled him home and scored on Juan Soto’s sacrifice fly to give Washington a swift 2-0 edge. And, as he has often done this season, Kershaw rebounded and held Washington to one hit over his final five innings. He struck out nine and walked three. He has logged at least six innings in each of his 18 starts this season. He would’ve gone seven innings if not for the trouble he encountered in the sixth when he walked two batters to create his first jam since the first inning.
Smith ensured the bullpen had some margin for error after closer Kenley Jansen’s high-wire act in Friday’s win. Jansen wasn’t available off his 34-pitch appearance, leaving Joe Kelly or Pedro Baez to close if a save situation arose. One didn’t as the Dodgers rolled to another victory behind Smith, who is proving, without a doubt, that he belongs.
“He’s not scared,” Bellinger said. “It’s fun to watch.”