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'Moakey,' full of confidence, belts 35th HR

First baseman credits an improved mental game for hitting prowess
MLB.com

TORONTO -- Justin Smoak has played two recurring roles for the Blue Jays in his breakout 2017. In a win, Smoak's often been the late-inning hero with 12 of his 35 home runs coming in the eighth inning or later. In a loss, he's often been the lone bright spot.

That was the case Friday in a 6-1 loss to the Twins as Smoak's 35th long ball of the season gave him the Blue Jays' single-season record for most home runs by a switch-hitter. The title was previously held by Jose Cruz, who belted 34 in 2001.

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TORONTO -- Justin Smoak has played two recurring roles for the Blue Jays in his breakout 2017. In a win, Smoak's often been the late-inning hero with 12 of his 35 home runs coming in the eighth inning or later. In a loss, he's often been the lone bright spot.

That was the case Friday in a 6-1 loss to the Twins as Smoak's 35th long ball of the season gave him the Blue Jays' single-season record for most home runs by a switch-hitter. The title was previously held by Jose Cruz, who belted 34 in 2001.

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"He's a new guy," manager John Gibbons said after the game. "He's changed some things mentally. He's locked in on what he wants to do. He's a hitter, he's not just up there slugging and swinging for the downs. He's turned into a really good hitter. Either side of the plate, it doesn't matter. Of course, his confidence is sky-high right now."

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Now 30 and coming off his first career All-Star appearance, "Moakey" is finally making good on the potential that made him one of the top offensive prospects in all of baseball prior to his Major League debut in 2010 with the Rangers. It's been a slow build as Smoak entered this season with an OPS of .700, but the security of an everyday job mixed with the experiences from his early years have produced the best story of the Blue Jays' season

"It's just a matter of being consistent and being in there every day," Smoak said. "I had an opportunity earlier in my career to do that and I didn't do it, so it's something that I feel like I've learned from. I've just got to keep that mindset. I feel like if you start getting down on yourself -- I've been there, I've done that -- and it didn't work for me."

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Smoak's success through the early stages of the season was impressive, but every season brings a handful of breakout stars who fade down the stretch. Smoak has been able to maintain his level of play against pitchers who are trying to adjust around his newfound reputation, and he credits an improved mental game for staying ahead.

"Some guys want to stay away," Smoak said. "Some guys want to come in. Some guys want to throw more off-speed stuff. I feel like I'm in a good state of mind mentally. I feel like you can play the game within the game a little bit more. I feel like this year I've been able to do that a lot more than I have in the past."

Already well past his previous career high of 20 home runs set in 2013 with the Mariners, Smoak now has an opportunity to push for the 40-homer plateau and sits just behind Aaron Judge, who leads the American League with 37. Friday's home run was tied for his third-longest of the season at 429 feet and was also the fourth-slowest pitch that Smoak has homered against this season at 81.2 mph from Bartolo Colon.

Keegan Matheson is a reporter for MLB.com based in Toronto and covered the Blue Jays on Friday.

Toronto Blue Jays, Justin Smoak