Kevin Smith wasn’t heavily recruited coming out of high school. He didn’t have countless letters and emails pouring in from college coaches.
He spent weeks — not months or years — talking to schools before making his decision. And, in his first two years playing at the collegiate level, Smith’s offensive numbers didn’t scream, “All American.”
So why are baseball experts suddenly watching Smith’s every move and speculating that he’ll be drafted in the top few rounds of MLB’s first-year player draft this June?
Because the University of Maryland junior shortstop had his breakout performance this summer in perhaps the best place to have one: the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League.
Smith hit .301, was named an All Star and won a championship with his summer club, earning the MVP award of the championship series.
Suddenly, scouts and other baseball observers are in love with this reserved, polite kid from an Albany, N.Y., suburb.
So, who exactly is Smith and why are the hopes of a really good Maryland baseball team firmly upon his shoulders?
Well, because he seemingly can handle the pressure.
“He’s just the kind of person you want to have representing the program, the way he speaks and looks the part,” Maryland’s head baseball coach, John Szefc, said about Smith. “You’re not really going to be able to tell if he went 1-for-4 or 4-for-4 in a day.”
Smith, a 6-foot, 188-pound shortstop from East Greenbush, N.Y., is in his third year as a starter for Szefc’s Terrapins. In his first two seasons, Smith started all but one of Maryland’s 123 games – an impressive feat for such an important defensive position.
It’s even more impressive considering Smith wasn’t chased by college recruiters like many future Division 1 starters.
Smith’s fairly uneventful recruitment period didn’t last long, just a few weeks of attending tournaments and showcases. It was at one of those tournaments when he caught the attention of Rob Vaughn, Maryland’s associate head coach.
“Coach Vaughn saw me his first day on the job and then sent me a letter to come down to the camp here (at Maryland),” Smith said. “Came down to the camp and Coach Szefc, who wasn’t supposed to be on campus, was here. He saw me, gave me a tour and then offered me (a scholarship) on the spot.”
Quick and easy. It seems to have worked out pretty well for all parties involved.
Although, Smith’s rise to national baseball prominence wasn’t so quick, wasn’t so easy.
As a freshman, Smith played well, but was overshadowed by eight Terrapins who ultimately were drafted by major league teams. Last season, he had a down year offensively, hitting just .259 with 34 RBIs.
Yet Szefc, for one, has seen Smith’s maturity, work ethic and baseball intellect surge. He always knew the kid was smart; Smith had a 4.0 GPA at Columbia (N.Y.) High School and received 2016 All-Academic honors as a finance major at Maryland. But now he’s more baseball-smart.
“He’s a lot more educated now,” Szefc said. “I think he understands how he’s going to be pitched, how to hit the ball to right field, what a two-strike approach is and what a non-two-strike approach is. He’s just a lot more educated than he was his freshman year. He started at a very high profile position for us as a freshman and never really withered from that.”
Smith pushed his way into the national college spotlight in the Cape league – considered the highest profile collegiate summer competition in the country — by leading the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox to a championship, their third consecutive title.
He appeared in 41 games for the Sox, hitting .301, driving in 14 runs and leading the team with 43 hits and 12 doubles. Those numbers earned him a spot in the league All-Star game with his Maryland teammate, Nick Dunn.
So how exactly did Smith take his game to the next level? He can’t really pinpoint a specific thing that clicked. He made some minor adjustments to his swing, they seemed to work and he rolled with it. The challenge of competing in the league may have been the biggest motivator, however.
“Overall, it was just playing with guys that were that good day-in and day-out and facing some of the best arms in the country,” Smith said. “It’s kind of either you do it or you go home. There’s really no choice – you either get better or you don’t.”
In the league’s championship series, Smith went 6-for-12 with a home run and three RBIs – including driving in a run that clinched the 3-0 finale and his status as series MVP.
Smith went up to Cape Cod with a plan to get better. He focused on baseball — not a summer vacation like some players do — and it paid off in increased confidence and a bevy of preseason praise. It’s something Smith wasn’t expecting.
“Since I was a high school player I really never got any (accolades), and that goes for a lot of guys on this team that are getting them now,” Smith said. “None of us were big-time names or big-time recruits out of school. We all just came here and went to work together and knew what we had to get better at.”
So far, Smith has been named a preseason All American by Baseball America and Perfect Game. He is also the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year as chosen by Perfect Game and D1baseball.
“When you’re not on those lists, you don’t pay attention to them. So, when you get on them, you don’t really look at them any differently,” he said. “You just kind of throw them aside and get back to what you were doing.”
It’s the perfect mentality to have – and it’s one his teammates must possess as well. The Terps are looking to make it back to the NCAA tournament after missing out last year, snapping a stretch of consecutive appearances in 2014 and 2015.
Maryland entered this season in the Top 25, but lost two of three last weekend while playing in their first tourney of the year in Clearwater, Fla. They lost to Ball State and nationally ranked Louisville, before salvaging a win Sunday against Alabama State.
Smith had a slow start, recording just one hit, one run and one RBI is his first 12 plate appearances of 2017. The Terps are obviously counting on more from Smith this season. And Szefc expects Smith to be just fine, considering his makeup and how he approaches everyday life, whether it’s as a college student, a team leader or a top-round MLB draft pick.
“I think the way he speaks and carries himself, he’s very similar to a Mike Shawaryn (who was drafted in the fifth round by the Boston Red Sox in 2016),” Szefc said. “They just can handle things, and you don’t have to spoon-feed them everything. … And he’s pretty street smart, although he looks very prim and proper.”
BaltimoreBaseball.com’s Top Performers of the Week
Jack Barry, INF, Salisbury University
Soph./Laurel, MD/Reservoir HS
The Salisbury University Seagulls hosted the top Division 3 team in the country this past weekend, the SUNY Cortland Red Dragons. While Cortland took both games, one player stood out for the Gulls. Barry, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound infielder, recorded three hits in eight plate appearances. He scored three times and launched a solo home run over the right-center field fence in the first game.
Christian Hodge, 1B/C, U.S. Naval Academy
Soph./Winder, GA/Winder-Barrow HS
Navy opened the 2017 season with a three-game series on the road in Durham, N.C. against North Carolina Central. Hodge, a 6-foot, 210-pound catcher and first baseman, looked good at the plate, hitting .400 and blasting one of three Midshipmen homers. Through three games, he leads Navy with three runs scored.
James Wiercinski, LHP, Stevenson University
Soph./Mineola, NY/Mineola HS
The Mustangs could only manage one win on their opening weekend and it came against Penn State Abington in Fayetteville, N.C. Wiercinski, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound southpaw, delivered a dominating performance. The lefty threw six shutout innings against the Nittany Lions, recording nine strikeouts and allowing just three hits. Stevenson won, 12-0.
Matchup to watch this weekend
Johns Hopkins opens the 2017 season this weekend by welcoming eighth-ranked St. John Fisher to town for a doubleheader Saturday. Hopkins ended last year by getting knocked out of the NCAA regional tournament in just two games, and now enters this season with a new look rotation after losing three starters, all of which were captains. St. John Fisher, one of eight teams to make it to the Division 3 World Series in Appleton, Wisc., last year, features some of the best talent in the country. This is the beginning of a tough stretch for Hopkins, which will play six of its next 11 games against teams that have been to the World Series in the past two seasons. Game One is set for Saturday morning at 11:30.
Maryland area players to watch in 2017
If you missed it last week, check out our first “College Corner” that featured Maryland’s Smith and 11 other local college players to watch.