The hits finally started dropping for Dodgers catcher Will Smith
With his teammates celebrating behind him after the Dodgers’ NLDS sweep of the San Diego Padres, Will Smith softly smiled into an MLB Network camera when asked about his big night at the plate.
“It was just one of those days,” the Dodgers catcher said.
Yeah, one of those record-breaking, slump-busting, series-clinching run-of-the-mill kind of days.
“It definitely felt good getting some hits.”
By “some,” Smith means five. As in, a five-for-six performance that propelled the Dodgers to a 12-3 win at Globe Life Field. As in, his first hits of October following an unlucky 0-for-11 start to the playoffs. As in, enough to set a new franchise record for most hits in a single postseason game.
The Dodgers sweep the San Diego Padres with a 12-3 win in Game 3 of the NLDS and advance to the NLCS where they will face the Atlanta Braves.
“Wow,” Smith said when told of the accomplishment. “That’s pretty cool.”
It’s the process, however, that matters most to the 25-year-old catcher. At least that’s what he said Thursday night, hardly batting an eye at the way he batted the ball around the park.
In the second, he pulled a two-strike breaking ball down the left-field line for his first career postseason double. In the fourth, he hammered a first-pitch fastball up the middle for his second playoff RBI. In the sixth, he shortened his swing in a 0-and-2 count and slapped a single the other way.
And after hitting another line drive up the middle in the eighth to match the Dodgers’ postseason hit record, he took the honor for himself with a two-run bases-loaded double deep to right in the ninth.
“I go one at-bat at a time,” Smith said after recording each hit against a different Padres pitcher. “As long as I’m finding good quality at-bats, good quality contact, I’m happy.”
Clinging to that mindset, Smith seemed hardly bothered by his hitless start to this year’s playoffs. Unlike last October, when as a rookie he went one-for-13 with five strikeouts in four games in the NLDS, he was making hard contact almost every time up.
Of those 11 outs, six left Smith’s bat at 90 mph or harder. According to MLB’s Statcast system, four had expected batting averages of at least .500. Despite the empty stat line, Justin Turner said Smith’s start to the NLDS “was about as good as anyone else’s first two games of this series.” Manager Dave Roberts, meanwhile, knew the catcher’s breakout would only be a matter of time.
The Dodgers showed early on in Game 3 of the National League Division Series against the Padres that they were focused on pitcher-hitter matchups.
“Finally,” Roberts said, “he got some luck.”
Or, perhaps, a little positive superstition.
“We were doing some rituals with the hitting coaches earlier in the day,” Smith said, declining with a chuckle to divulge any details. “I guess that got me right.”
Smith couldn’t remember when, or even if, he had five hits before.
“Maybe high school,” he said. “Or little league or something.”
Whenever it was, it was on an infinitely smaller stage than Thursday’s game, in which Smith also became the youngest player in MLB history with a five-hit playoff performance.
“I didn’t really see that one coming,” he said. “I’ll take it though.”
This isn’t the same wide-eyed prospect that rode along for the last month of the Dodgers’ 2018 season, or the slump-prone rookie who had a rollercoaster 2019 debut season.
This version of Smith is more mature, more alert. He carefully observes Turner’s batting practice sessions and Mookie Betts’ detailed offensive approach. He takes bits and pieces from other players’ games and puts it into his.
And he does it all while balancing responsibilities behind the plate, a task that has become more important with the way the Dodgers have leaned on their bullpen in the first two rounds.
The Dodgers stampeded over the Padres in the National League Division Series, but Kenley Jansen and Joe Kelly haven’t been reliable late in games.
“We expect a lot, demand a lot, from our catchers,” Roberts said. “So to sort of handle that and not take the lack of success or results from the offensive side to the defense, he just does an outstanding job and continues to get better.”
Smith wasn’t the only Dodger to set a franchise record Thursday. Earlier in the night, Turner overtook Steve Garvey as the club’s postseason hits leader with 64.
“Records are cool,” Turner said. “Championships are better.”
It’s one more example for Smith to follow – setting his sights on a prize far bigger than any personal single-game accolade.
“Mentally, I’ve been in a really good state this whole year,” said Smith, who led the team with a .980 on-base-plus-slugging in the shortened regular season. “I just keep doing what I’m doing and let the rest take care of itself.”
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