When Dominic Smith stepped to the plate in the first inning Saturday night against Colorado, the big board beyond the centerfield fence at Citi Field made a visual statement about his season for the Mets. It came in the form of three numbers, the ones reflecting his batting average: .386.
He hadn’t been at the plate enough to officially qualify for the batting race, but for those with at least 75 plate appearances, his average stood No. 1 in the major leagues.
After struggling in his first two seasons, Smith has taken a large step forward. He’s finally a hit, albeit in a limited role.
“Swinging at good pitches,” Smith said. “I’m healthy, work hard and having fun. I only had 300 career at-bats [310 to be exact] before this year. So you have to take a little time … I never doubted myself, so it’s not a surprise to me.”
Mickey Callaway had Smith batting third and playing leftfield. He went 0-for-4 in the Mets' 5-3 win and still left with an impressive .365 average.
Smith had mostly been a defensive replacement and backup for Pete Alonso at first and a pinch hitter. But because of injuries, the manager has changed course of late after being reluctant to play Smith in left. This was his sixth start out there in the last 11 days. That productive bat had something to do with it, too.
The lefthanded-hitting 2013 first-round pick entered Saturday having hit safely in each of his previous six starts, batting .545 with two doubles, three solo homers and a 1.661 OPS. He was batting .400 in his 11 starts overall and .500 in his previous 14 games.
Overall, he had 70 at-bats in 51 games, with 12 walks, five doubles, four homers and nine RBIs. His on-base percentage stood at .482, his slugging percentage at .629. Smith, who was sent to Triple-A Syracuse briefly in early May, also has excelled as a pinch hitter, batting .333 (7-for-21) with a homer and three RBIs.
Consider that Smith batted .198 with nine homers and 26 RBIs in his first 49-game taste of the majors in 2017. He hit .224 with five homers and 11 RBIs across five stints and 56 games last season.
“I think this is the hitter that Dom Smith has always been,” Callaway said. “I think in the past in his major-league career and sometimes this year, the at-bats haven’t been there consistently. I think he’s taking a different approach this year, and not an approach at the plate, but an approach about his role on the team.
“He understands he’s a great hitter. And whether he gets to start or not, he comes to the field every day ready to help the team in some form, and he works every day to try and do that. So he’s really embraced the role.”
“I think he realized, ‘If I don’t change what I’m doing, this is going to cost me my career,’ ” Callaway said. “So kudos to him. He understood that. He made the adjustment, and he comes out here this year and look at what a valuable player he is for the New York Mets.”
A CPAP machine also has played a role this season, allowing him to combat his sleep apnea, giving him more energy and better focus. “That’s helped him dramatically,” Callaway said.
Smith said that while he isn’t close to “a Gold Glove-caliber leftfielder,” he’s more comfortable now. “We need his bat in our lineup,” Callaway said. “It’s just obvious.”
There will be decisions to make when Robinson Cano is healthy enough again to man second. Will Jeff McNeil move from second and play left most of the time? Will Smith go back to the dugout?
In the longer view, Alonso is blocking him at first. But Smith isn’t sweating over how he fits in down the road.
“You can’t worry about that,” Smith said. “You worry about stuff like that, you won’t be able to go out and perform every day and put together good ABs or do anything to help the team win. I’m 23 in the big leagues … There are a million kids who would kill to be in my position, in my shoes. I’m just blessed to be here.”
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