ANAHEIM, Calif. — On Justin Smoak’s list of accomplishments this week, his explosive start to the season takes a distinct second place. Smoak’s wife, Kristin, announced on opening day via Twitter (or “tweeter”, as Justin calls it) that they are expecting their first child.
That joyous milestone aside, Smoak couldn’t ask for much more of an auspicious debut to what is truly a make-or-break season with the Mariners. He can’t ride unfulfilled potential much further, and there are statistical indicators screaming out that it’s approaching a lost cause.
But the Mariners continue to see something in Smoak that warrants another shot in the middle of their lineup. Or perhaps they were just clinging to false hope to justify another high-profile trade that would otherwise be a bust.
So far, in the infancy of a new season, Smoak is showing everyone else, too, that this still might work out in the end.
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Yes, we’re playing Small Sample Size Theater. But more than the eye-popping numbers – Smoak is on pace for 81 homers, 162 doubles and 486 runs batted in, har har – are the more subtle signs of progress. Or, dare I say it, of a breakthrough, an epiphany.
Moments like his three-run homer in the ninth inning of Monday’s opener, when he sent a mammoth drive down the right-field line to break open what had been a tight game.
Perhaps the old Smoak would have hooked it foul, just another loud strike. But this year, he has devoted himself to keeping his hands in the strike zone longer, which he believes allows him to see the ball a crucial millisecond longer.
After that home run, Smoak and Robinson Cano shared a light moment in the dugout, which he revealed later to Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN was Cano joking that he was done helping Smoak.
Not a chance, of course, because this is a symbiotic relationship. Cano needs protection in the lineup, and his nurturing of Smoak, from Day One, could help provide it. One of the coolest things in spring, and the early part of the season, has been Smoak watching Cano’s every move, shadowing him in batting practice and beyond in search of the mystical qualities of Cano’s textbook swing that might be transferable.
That includes taking heed of Cano’s famous “Net Drill”, which teaches one the proper way to pull the ball. Did that come into play on Monday in helping Smoak – hitting cleanup behind Cano – keep that ball fair in the ninth? Impossible to say, of course, but fair it stayed.
And those hopeful moments continued to mount Tuesday as the Mariners kept battering Angels pitching. In the first inning, hitting right-handed – cue the ominous music — Smoak got down two strikes on Angels lefty C.J. Wilson. With the infield shifted over to the left side, he took a short, compact swing and hit the ball to the right side of second base for a solid single.
“I think right-handed, that’s the first time I’ve seen the shift,” Smoak said. “Left-handed, of course, a lot. Let them keep doing it.”
For a switch-hitter who hit just .192 from the right side last year, it was a thing of beauty.
But not as beautiful as Smoak’s at-bat in the third inning, when Wilson intentionally walked Cano with two outs to load the bases. Such strategy, with a base open, will be de rigueur for opponents, making it incumbent upon Smoak to foil it. And he did so to perfection, stinging a liner to left-center for a bases-clearing double.
“That’s what he’s going to have to do,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said after Tuesday’s 8-3 win. “He’s going to be challenged, but he’s swinging the bat extremely well, and he’s full of confidence. I like what I see from him.”
Mike Scioscia’s decision to walk Cano was hardly a shock to Smoak.
“No doubt – wouldn’t you?” he said. “I just wanted to go up there, relaxed. It’s going to happen, and there’s a reason why. So just go up there, relaxed, and don’t try to do too much. Just have a good at-bat.”
It’s hard to will oneself into a relaxed state, but early success should make the process progressively easier.
“I’m trying to have a different mindset up there from both sides of the plate, trying to stay in the middle of field, not get ahead of myself trying to pull the ball, and it’s worked the last two nights,’’ Smoak said.
Speaking of doubles, remember back to early in spring training, when McClendon said he’d like to see Smoak lead the league in doubles? Most people stifled laughter at the thought of the plodding Smoak racking up two-baggers at such a pace, but I see a method to McClendon’s madness. He wisely doesn’t want him obsessing about hitting the ball out of the park but rather doing all those hitterly things that Cano is now modeling. Like staying up the middle, staying short and compact, seeing the ball longer, all of which are the stuff of doubles to the gap.
So far, it’s manifesting itself in games that count. Just two of them, so we’ll hold off on the MVP campaign. But Smoak and Dustin Ackley – another player for whom patience is running thin – have so far looked like entirely new players, the type that the Mariners can ride a long way, if it proves sustainable.
“A lot of the guys that have been here the last few years, we know we need to take the next step,’’ Smoak said after Monday’s 10-3 Seattle victory. “We’re ready for it, and we now we’re capable of doing it. We just have to be consistent. It’s something we’re all trying to do this year.”
And now, after an extremely pleasant start full of backslaps and gappers, there are just 160 more games to keep doing it.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.