Eight-hundred miles away from a hometown he’d previously never left, Josh Smith endures some good-hearted hazing.
It’s measured, he said, with no purpose other than to make the 18-year-old homebody playing baseball in a faraway place feel at ease. Smith is playing alongside college players three or four years older than him two months before the incoming LSU freshman steps on campus.
“They always mess with me,” Smith said. “They call me ‘freshman.’”
They’re a few months ahead of schedule.
In LSU coach Paul Mainieri’s 10-year tenure, three players have been summoned for Smith’s atypical assignment: to play summer baseball in a collegiate league as incoming freshmen.
Kevin Gausman pitched in the California Collegiate League while negotiating unsuccessfully with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who drafted him in the sixth round of the 2010 MLB draft.
Now there’s Smith, the former Catholic High standout, and Ouachita Christian product Jake Slaughter, another shortstop, adding their names to this exclusive list with startlingly stellar summers.
Both will play in All Star Games Wednesday night: Smith the starting shortstop in the Prospect League tilt in Kokomo, Indiana, and Slaughter in the Cal Ripken League game in Bethesda, Maryland. More than their stats and accolades, though, is the consistent college pitching the two are facing.
Slaughter, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound draft-eligible sophomore who said he can play three infield positions, began his summer abroad 2-for-13. Getting behind in two-strike counts, where Slaughter swung freely at subpar offspeed pitches in high school, now almost certainly signaled his demise at the hands of a more proficient put-away arsenal.
“Missing your pitches is a big deal here,” Slaughter said. “I’ve really had to focus on trying to drive the ball up the middle every time and think ‘center of the field.’ That way I don’t pull off anything. I’m just trying to hunt the fastball, and it’s been really good and I’ve learned a lot.”
Picked for this assignment, Mainieri said, because of his small high school and early draft eligibility, Slaughter’s upped his average to .271 in 96 at-bats, leading his team with eight doubles.
“When (the ball) goes, it has a ton of backspin on it,” said Jeff Rabberman, Slaughter’s manager. “That’s the reason for his success. His bat head is in that zone for so long. He’s pretty damn special. … He swings at good pitches, too. He’s not a kid that chases very often. His swing is one of the better ones that I’ve seen in anybody that I’ve ever coached.”
Smith’s swing, meanwhile, has been tweaked. His father accompanied him to Danville for Smith’s first three games, where he started 2-for-10. At other points in his career, Smith lifted his front foot in the batter's box. Father suggested to son he add it back.
“Not a big one,” Smith said. “It helped me see the ball a little better out of the hand. It helps me hit the fastball any chance I get. And if I get two strikes, I get my two-strike approach and try to read the spin on it.”
Now stats suggest Smith — the team’s youngest member — is its best player. His .343 batting average and .957 on-base plus slugging are second on the team, trailing only a player who has 44 at-bats. Smith has 99.
Smith leads the team with 18 stolen bases. His runs created — a sabermetric that measures the number of runs a hitter is responsible for — is nearing 22. No other player’s RC is more than 17.
“You’re kind of nervous being the youngest one and getting away from home this long. But I’m having a blast up here, it’s awesome,” Smith said. “I set out a goal for myself to just come out here and do the best I could. But I never really imagined myself being in the All-Star Game.”