Eric Smith tried on his father’s catcher’s glove a few times as a kid, but Stanford’s leading hitter had never caught a sanctioned game until he was penciled in as the Opening Day starter earlier this year.
With seven starters returning from last season’s super regional team, the Stanford baseball team was in good shape going into the 2012 season. But the lineup had one glaring hole: who would catch?
Smith, who had started only seven games prior to this season, didn’t just catch the bulk of the Cardinal’s innings this season, he’s leading the team at the plate with a .329 batting average heading into this weekend’s NCAA regional at Sunken Diamond.
“The odds of making a switch like that are nearly impossible,” coach Mark Marquess said. “It’s not like taking a guy from infield to outfield.”
Marquess first approached Smith about catching on the plane ride home from the super regional in North Carolina last year. A scout had told him that Smith had soft hands and received the ball well; without an heir apparent at catcher, he was worth checking out.
“I was thrown back a little bit,” Smith said. “But as [the idea] settled in, I was like, you know what? This could actually be a really good opportunity for me.”
After returning from summer ball, the career infielder (shortstop in high school, second and third base at Stanford) started learning his new position in the batting cage with assistant coach Brock Ungricht.
“We were just getting pounded out there,” Smith said. “Every day I was learning something new.”
But Smith didn’t know that he had the gig until he saw his name penciled into lineup card on Opening Day against Vanderbilt.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, catch the first pitch — catch the first pitch and you’ll be fine,” he said.
Smith didn’t just catch Mark Appel’s 96 mph fastball that night, he hit the first home run of his collegiate career, an inside-the-parker.
“That was a day I’ll never forget,” Smith said.
He earned the chance to start again the next day and the day after that. In all, Smith’s caught 45 of 54 games for the Cardinal this season.
Smith said his breakout year at the plate (.372 OBP, 31 runs, 31 RBIs) might have something to do with his new position.
“In high school, whenever I’d pitch, I’d always hit better — maybe your concentration level’s a little better. I feel like it’s the same way with catcher because you can’t take a pitch off,” he said.
Marquess said his catcher’s offensive production is a bonus.
“I told him, I don’t care if you hit .100. If you can catch [I’m happy],” he said.