Reporters had to lean in close to hear C.J. Smith Saturday.
Amidst the fans excitedly chattering with one another, the Foley Field grounds crew working away and his teammates yelling “let’s go!” to one another, Smith’s soft voice and quiet demeanor was drowned out fast.
The ninth-ranked Bulldogs had just beaten No. 11 LSU 2-0. They were excited, understandably. It was a tough, quick game, which capped in at under three hours in length, full of strikeouts and defensive gems. Georgia, which had a single hit after seven innings, had to wait until the bottom of the eighth inning before scoring its first runs of the game (it scored both of its runs in that frame).
The 3,000-plus fans at Foley Field celebrated when the final out was recorded a half-inning later. Georgia’s players rushed Aaron Schunk, Georgia’s closer, who stood the mound in celebration.
When it all quieted down (and it didn’t, very much), it was Smith’s turn to tell everyone how it happened, through his eyes. And how, after giving up five earned runs the weekend before against South Carolina, he managed to pull off a career day against a talented Tigers squad.
“After last week, I was struggling to throw strikes,” Smith said. “(I was) leaving the ball up in the zone a little bit. This week, I wanted to make sure to keep the ball down, keep the ball in the zone, and it really worked out.”
That’s a humble way of putting it.
Smith threw six scoreless innings Saturday and gave up four hits. He issued one walk, but it became evident early on that he’d re-discovered the strike zone.
Seven strikeouts total. Four in the first two innings. Whenever it looked like the Tigers would break the 0-0 deadlock, Smith would string together a few outs, or issue a three-pitch strikeout.
Georgia wasn’t exactly tearing it up at the plate, either. The Bulldogs had one hit before they finally broke through in the eighth inning, and only walked once the entire game.
“On a good day, (my fastball) have a lot of sink on it, because I throw all two-seams (a type of fastball),” Smith said. “It was feeling good today, and it was sinking a lot, for sure.”
Smith said he really worked that fastball Saturday, and said his changeup worked much better than it did against South Carolina. Head coach Scott Stricklin compared Smith’s changeup to throwing a “bar of wet soap.”
“It just comes out of his hand, and you don’t know which way it’s going,” Stricklin said.
Of course, on Friday, he stood in the dugout and watched fellow sophomore Emerson Hancock light up the radar. Hancock, in Georgia’s 1-0 Friday night loss, Hancock went a career-high eight innings and gave up two hits.
So, today was just Smith’s turn.
“It’s hard to not overthink it and just be like, ‘man, Emerson just threw eight marvelous innings,’” Smith said. “Then I come out here and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to do the same.’ It’s very nice to have the confidence in the next guy to come out.”
Smith and Hancock, along with the rest of Georgia’s pitchers, have held the Tigers to one run in 18 innings. The Tigers got five hits Saturday, but left seven men on base.
And Sunday? Well, the Bulldogs trot out Columbus native Tony Locey, the one guy Stricklin said he isn’t worried about when it comes to pressure.
There’s a certain pride about the Bulldogs’ pitching staff. They’re on a roll, and a win Sunday would further punctuate their strong start.
“We’re definitely competitive with each other,” Smith said. “Emerson threw a heck of a game yesterday, and I wanted to try and come out and do the same thing.”