Ever-ready Dwight Smith Jr. shining in third call-up with Blue Jays

Russell Martin homered to put the Blue Jays ahead as they split a two-game series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

TORONTO — Dwight Smith Jr. had plans Wednesday. With his Buffalo Bisons having just returned from a week-long, east-coast road trip, there was a pile of laundry sitting in his apartment that wasn’t going to wash itself. But here we are on Thursday morning and that pile remains untouched. Ballplayers: not so unlike you and I.

The reason the clothing has gone unlaundered is because Smith had to tend to the slightly-more-pressing task of making his first major-league start in left field for the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night. All he did was put up a three-hit game.

“His reputation is he’s always been able to hit,” says Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. “So, that’s big for him getting his feet wet and feeling like he’s part of the team. He’s doing a nice job.”

A few minutes before noon on Wednesday, Smith’s phone lit up with the caller ID of his Bisons manager, Bobby Meacham, which is either a very good or very bad thing to see for a minor-league ballplayer. This time, it was fortunately the former, as Meacham informed Smith he was off to Toronto to replace the injured Ezequiel Carrera on the Blue Jays roster.

Having been through this twice already in 2017—including his first call-up this May, an event that caught the 24-year-old outfielder completely off guard—he’s learned how to stay ready. Smith now keeps a bag half-packed, just in case the Blue Jays require his last-minute services.

“You could say I was more prepared for it this time around,” he says. “I was a little bit more packed.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Into a car and along the Queen Elizabeth Way he went, arriving at Rogers Centre at 3:20 p.m. and immediately being informed that Wednesday of all days was team photo day and he had to be out on the field in 10 minutes with the rest of his new teammates. Pants on, jersey tucked in, hat pushing down the tall plumes of hair atop his head, Smith rushed out to take his place in the third row of the photo, smiling widely as the camera shuttered.

Then, straight into batting practice. And fielding work. And scouting reports on that night’s pitcher. He had a bit of time to catch his breath between the end of the on-field pre-game activities and first pitch. But on a day like that, 7:07 comes awfully fast.

Of course, if Smith was at all discombobulated by his whirlwind day, he didn’t show it between the lines. He stepped into the box in the second inning and sent a two-out, two-strike sinker right back up the middle for a single. He struck out in his next at-bat, but hit two more singles later in the game, which makes him now 4-for-10 as a big leaguer.

His second hit was a little strange, as he got under an 0-2 fastball on the inside half of the plate and sent it sky high into shallow left-centre field. Somehow, no Tampa Bay defender was able to get eyes on the ball, which had a hit probability of one per cent and still dropped in.

Smith, of course, is not complaining. His biggest concern was Russell Martin—who was on first at the time—making it into second base.

“I saw Russ in front of me and he couldn’t see it, either. No one could see that thing,” Smith says. “But I thought it might drop, so I was yelling at Russ, like, ‘Go! Go! Go!’”

In the eighth, he chopped a 99-m.p.h. fastball back up the middle, sprinting down the line to beat out a throw as his helmet bounced behind him. It wasn’t only his third hit of the night, but an opportunity to showcase another element of his game.

Smith reached second on a sacrifice bunt and then, two pitches later, took off on Rays reliever Jose Alvarado’s first movement, sliding foot-first into third with time to spare and his first major-league stolen base.

“I was just taking what they give me,” he says. “That was my game plan the whole day. Just trying not to do too much. Whatever they handed me, I was going to take it.”

That’s a sound strategy in both the micro and macro, especially for a still-establishing-himself player with minor-league options like Smith, who the Blue Jays have shuttled between Toronto and Buffalo since mid-May. His first call-up lasted only two games, and his second was for just one during a week that saw him play for Buffalo on a Tuesday, Toronto on the Wednesday, and then back in Buffalo on Thursday afternoon.

It’s not a life of stability, but it is one of opportunity, and Smith says he learned a lot from those first two call-ups—especially when he returned to Buffalo the second time and had a chance to reflect on the experience.

“You first come up and it’s just an awesome feeling seeing the ballpark and the lights and the crowd. It’s every kid’s dream,” he says. “But, really, going back to Buffalo helped it sink in. We had a couple of off-days so I could kind of think about it. Because during that first week I got called up, I was definitely all over the place.”

Who’s to say how long this latest call-up will last. Steve Pearce is expected to rejoin the Blue Jays on Friday and resume taking the lion’s share of playing time in left field. Someone will have to leave to make room.

But working in Smith’s favour is the fact that, with Carrera hurt, he’s currently the lone natural back-up centre-fielder on the roster (with apologies to Jose Bautista, who has played 24 games there since 2006). Smith was also tabbed to start Wednesday night against Rays right-hander Jake Odorizzi over Chris Coghlan, the Blue Jays utility player who has hit right-handed pitching very well over his career. That could say something.

There is also a case to be made that Smith deserves an extended look after hitting .303/.364/.443 over 226 plate appearances with the Bisons this year. It’s the best offensive season he’s had since turning pro in 2012, and the fact he’s shaved a couple points off his strikeout rate from last year (down to 15 per cent from 17.3 per cent) is certainly encouraging.

“I’ve just been taking pressure off myself. Really just taking what they give me. Trying not to get too big. And staying within myself. That seems to be working alright,” Smith says of what’s behind his success this season. “I’ve tried to do that the whole year. Because I’ve put pressure on myself in the past and I didn’t perform well. So, I just try to relax as much as I can and just play my game.”

So, we’ll see what the next turn is in the whirlwind season of Dwight Smith Jr. Now over the nerves of his first two call-ups, he says it doesn’t feel any different being in the majors—“The lights are brighter, that’s all”—this time around. The pitchers have a bit more command; they give in less. But everything else is just baseball. And if he keeps playing like he did Wednesday night, he’ll keep proving he belongs.

“I remember the situation coming up and feeling the jitters a little bit,” Martin says, pointing out that Smith adds a much-needed speed threat to the Blue Jays lineup. “So, it was nice to see him get a couple hits out there and help us win. Hopefully he keeps it going. That’s definitely a boost for us.”

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