At a Wednesday scrimmage, about two and a half weeks before he’ll play his first official collegiate game in front of one of those big crowds Alex Box Stadium is known for, Josh Smith made some jaws drop anyway.
He wasn’t playing his natural position, shortstop — that’ll have to wait until next year because even talented newcomers have to wait their turn. But he sure looked like a natural at third base when he made a diving snag on a Bryce Jordan screamer down the line and then made the strong throw to first for the out.
“At shortstop, you have a little more time,” Smith said a handful of days before making that play. “At third, you’ve got to react a little quicker. It’s the hot corner, especially in the SEC, guys are hitting the ball a lot harder.”
It was a play coach Paul Mainieri called a “Major League web gem.” Mainieri was just as impressed later when Smith made a tricky play — the ball spinning oddly off the end of a left-hander’s bat — look routine.
This is the obvious talent of Josh Smith, the Tigers’ home-bred shortstop of the future. At a young age, he is consistent while showing flashes of brilliance.
It’s the type of talent that likely would’ve made him an early draft pick in last June’s Major League Baseball draft had he indicated he was willing to sign professionally.
“Had he told the scouts, ‘I’m signable, draft me where you think I should be drafted and I’ll sign for that slot,’ then I’m sure he would’ve been drafted in the top five rounds,” Mainieri said. “But he was telling scouts he was committed to going to LSU, that was his dream, he always wanted to play here."
But there is sometimes danger that comes with youth and talent for those who possess both.
What Mainieri is trying to get Smith to understand is, at this level, just about every player on the diamond is highly skilled. For the Catholic High product to reach his full, vast potential, it might require some hard coaching and some lessons learned.
“He’s going to learn — and I’m already trying to teach him — that as good a player as you are, these other teams are going to have really good players too,” Mainieri said. “It’s hard to be successful at LSU, it’s hard to be consistent. You’re going to get your nose bloodied. So having the discipline to do the little things well are of utmost importance. He’s still kind of learning that.
“As good a kid as he is, as cool a customer as he is, as skilled as he is, I’m not anointing him any kind of All-American yet. He’s got a ways to go. But I think the basic talent is there, the skillset is there, once he kind of gets it.”
It’s not as simple as Smith having confidence in his abilities, or being unflappable under pressure. The coach said his freshman infielder already possesses those qualities.
“It’s just understanding the nuances of the game a little more specifically,” Mainieri said. “How a little base running move or his positioning or the ability to put a bunt down can make the difference between us winning or losing a ballgame.”
Smith, for his part, appears to understand what his coach wants from him and why he wants it.
“He expects a lot for the freshman, and he should,” Smith said. “We’ve got a good group of guys, and we’ve got a lot of talent. I think we’ve got a shot to do something special this year.”
Smith also has attached himself to some of LSU’s veteran leadership.
He calls shortstop Kramer Robertson, whose spot he’s likely to take next season, his “locker buddy.”
“I’m with him every day,” Smith said. “He’s gotten to be one of my best friends. He’s been a role model to me, for sure. He’s a goofball, I love him to death, he’s been awesome to me.”
This might not be an accident. Robinson was a talented high school shortstop in his own right, but to use Mainieri’s phrasing, he repeatedly had his nose bloodied before his talent shone through.
Robertson had a .212 career batting average before his breakout 2016 campaign, when he hit .324, scored 61 runs and earned All-America honors.
This is Smith’s baseball education, one LSU hopes will come in handy for the inevitable moment when a freshman realizes he’s not on a high school field anymore. The Tigers also hope Smith is a quick study. They know they have a talented commodity, but they also know they do not have two full years to let that talent germinate.
When a player from Air Force, or Texas A&M or somewhere else smokes a rocket down the third base line and Smith feels the weight of thousands of eyes on him, LSU needs him to make the play he made at Wednesday’s scrimmage. When Mainieri calls for Smith to bunt in the same scenario, they need their talented player to get the ball down in fair territory.
The good news: his role model thinks he’s ready now.
“I think that’s what’s been most impressive; the moment is not too big for him,” He hasn’t actually played in a game yet, but he’s got a chance to be a special player. He’s got a lot of poise.”
Of course, there was more to that quote.
“And he’s obviously very talented.”