Will Smith came to the plate in the second inning Thursday night without a hit in his first 11 at-bats this postseason. Staring at a .000 batting average in October might bother some veteran players, much less a 25-year-old with fewer than 100 games in the Majors.
Smith wasn’t worried, and nobody was worried about Smith. The way he was hitting, it was just a matter of time before balls started to fall.
“His 0-for-11,” Dodgers teammate Justin Turner said, “was about as good as anyone else’s first two games in this series.”
Sure enough, Smith went off as the Dodgers completed a three-game sweep of the Padres in the National League Division Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington. Smith went 5-for-6 with two doubles and three RBIs, setting all sorts of postseason records in the 12-3 victory.
Even he didn’t expect his luck to turn around quite like that.
“I didn’t really see that one coming,” Smith said, smiling. “I’ll take it, though.”
Who wouldn’t take a night like the one Smith enjoyed as the Dodgers clinched their fourth trip to the NL Championship Series in five years? His five-hit game was the ninth in postseason history, the first ever by a Dodgers player and the first since Albert Pujols in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series.
At 25 years and 194 days old, Smith is the youngest player in postseason history to accomplish the feat. He joined an even smaller class of four players -- Pujols, Hideki Matsui, Paul Blair and now Smith -- with five hits and at least three RBIs in a postseason game.
Furthermore, it was Smith’s first five-hit game as a professional baseball player. The 2016 first-round Draft pick guessed that his last five-hit night came in high school or Little League.
By the time it was all over, his .000 postseason batting average turned into a much more palatable .294. Despite a vague reference to some “rituals” he performed with the Dodgers’ coaching staff, all that really changed for Smith was some better luck.
“He was taking great at-bats, hitting balls hard all over the place and wasn’t getting rewarded for it. It was awesome tonight to see him get some results,” Turner said. “He’s been good all year. He stays in the strike zone better than anyone. He hits the ball harder than anyone when they throw it in the strike zone. He just stayed within himself, didn’t get frustrated, kept showing up and working, and it paid off tonight.”
The Dodgers saw plenty of this from Smith during the abbreviated regular season. In 37 games, he slashed .289/.401/.579 with eight homers, 25 RBIs and nearly as many walks (20) as strikeouts (22). Despite his relative inexperience on a roster loaded with veterans, Smith said he feels comfortable in the clubhouse, and his conversations with coaches and hitters like Turner and Mookie Betts have helped him feel more confident at the plate.
“He does such a great job of controlling the strike zone, putting good swings on it. He was big for us,” outfielder AJ Pollock said. “He was huge. And we’re going to need him moving forward.”
Smith continued to crush everything he saw as the Padres threw 11 different arms at the Dodgers in Game 3. His second-inning double down the left-field line off Adrian Morejon came off the bat at 93.8 mph, according to Statcast. Smith’s other four hits all came with exit velocities of at least 95 mph, the kind of solid contact he made all season while significantly trimming his strikeout rate.
“Mentally, I’ve been in a really good state this whole year, just going one at-bat at a time. That’s all I can control,” Smith said. “I can’t control where they play, where the ball goes, to a certain extent. I’ve been happy the whole year, hitting balls hard. … I just keep doing what I’m doing and the rest will take care of itself.”
But Turner acknowledged that Smith’s trust in his own process and his calm presence at the plate are part of the reason he’s “well beyond his years” as a hitter. The way Smith handled his hitless skid to start the playoffs only further validated that.
“It’s very rare, especially when you lay on the fact that he is a starting catcher. We expect a lot, demand a lot from our catchers with run prevention,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “To handle that and not take the lack of success or results from the offensive side to the defense, he just does an outstanding job of continuing to get better. And also when you’re not getting the results, to continue to just believe in your process of taking good at-bats, that they will come, he’s done a great job.”
Smith’s performance also served as a prime example of how many ways the Dodgers’ lineup can churn out runs.
Yes, the Dodgers can slug better than any other team in baseball. They proved that by launching 118 home runs this season, 15 more than the Braves -- their NLCS opponent -- and 22 more than any other team. But no, they don’t have to pound balls over the fence to demolish opposing pitching staffs. They proved that by sweeping the Padres while only hitting one home run in the entire series.
They take just as much pride in team at-bats -- that keep-the-line-moving, pass-the-baton approach -- as they do in their singular ability to change games with one swing.
“As long as I’m finding good quality at-bats, good quality contact, I’m happy,” Smith said. “I never really got down on myself for not having hits. Each new at-bat, I could help the team win. Yeah, it was nice to get some hits tonight.”