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Smith, 'Hoppers jump out to Finals lead09/10/2012 11:52 PM ET
By Sam Dykstra / Special to MLB.com
A little over a year ago, Matt Smith was recovering from both Tommy John surgery and a bruised ego.
He underwent the procedure after his senior season at the University of Mississippi in 2010, and it kept him from being selected in that year's Draft. He was worried that he would never play baseball professionally, but that thought drove him through the rehabilitation process.
"I really just wanted to play again," he said. "When I was going through my rehab, I wanted to do everything to the best of my ability. That way if I got a chance, I could show everybody that I did belong here."
The culmination of that work came when a Marlins scout signed the outfielder/designated hitter in 2011.
And the first big payoff came in Game 1 of the South Atlantic League Finals on Monday.
Smith homered in his first at-bat and finished 3-for-3 with two RBIs and two runs scored in Class A Greensboro's 6-3 win at Asheville. The 24-year-old rookie finished just a triple shy of the cycle in the first championship game of his professional career.
The right-handed hitter's two-run opposite-field longball came on a 1-0 curveball by Tourists right-handed starter Ben Alsup in the second inning.
In a world in which first-swing homers in a championship setting are either the stuff of legends or Hollywood scripts, it'd be easy to think that Smith was perhaps aiming for the fences. He insists that wasn't the case.
"I'm just looking for something up because I knew he was throwing everything high," said the former Ole Miss Rebel. "He's a type of pitcher that's looking to pitch to contact, so that's something I want to play into. I'm definitely not trying to hit a home run there. All I'm trying to do is get the most out of my swing, maybe hit something in the gap. But I got a good pitch up and hit it pretty well."
Smith was hit by an Alsup pitch in the fourth, singled in the sixth and doubled to lead off the ninth.
With those three hits, he improved to 5-for-11 (.455) in three playoff games thus far for the best average among the remaining Grasshoppers and Tourists batters. His two doubles and 10 total bases also lead the pack.
It's just the latest in what has been a rather successful first campaign for the Georgia native.
He owned a .279/.358/.506/.864 batting line in 90 games for Greensboro. His 20 home runs ranked second in the Sally League while his 74 RBIs placed him 10th. For his first-half efforts, he earned a spot as the starting DH on the North Division All-Star team in June -- his first All-Star team as a pro.
For a player one year removed from Tommy John rehab, those numbers have surprised even the slugger who produced them.
"No, there's no way I would have predicted this," Smith said. "I obviously haven't played much defense. But at the plate, I've been hitting with some power, the RBI totals have been good. I'm just really learning to play baseball at this level, where everything's so much different than it was in college."
His Grasshoppers are now two wins from giving what has already been a good season the perfect ending. Smith contends he knows just the formula to get them there.
"For us, our team just needs to stay relaxed," he said. "This team has been a lot of fun to play with, and you can tell we're better when we're a little bit looser. We do a better job of shagging balls, moving runners over when we need to, little stuff like that. If we can do that, we'll have a better chance to close this out."
Third baseman and cleanup hitter Josh Adams was 2-for-4 with a solo homer and two runs scored for the Grasshoppers.
Marlins' No. 4 prospect Andrew Heaney struck out nine and allowed three runs (two earned) on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings, but did not factor into the decision. Brad Mincey (2-0) got the win after giving up just three hits in 2 1/3 scoreless innings. Kevin Cravey tossed a perfect seventh and Nick Wittgren earned his third playoff save in three games with a spotless ninth.
Alsup (0-2) surrendered four earned runs on eight hits -- two of which were homers -- over six innings. Samuel Mende led the Tourists at the plate, going 3-for-4 with an RBI.