Smith Hitting His Stride at Hofstra

By on February 28, 2018
Warwick grad Justin Smith, a sophomore at Hofstra University, digs into the batter’s box and waits for the pitch. Photo courtesy of Hofstra Athletic Communications

Warwick grad Justin Smith, a sophomore at Hofstra University, digs into the batter’s box and waits for the pitch. Photo courtesy of Hofstra Athletic Communications

Justin Smith’s season stats won’t reflect it.

But that doesn’t mean the 2016 Warwick High School grad’s grand slam Feb. 18 in the Dominican Republic won’t rank among his highlights.

A sophomore on the Hofstra University baseball team, Smith’s seventh-inning shot came during an exhibition game against the Dominican’s Mejia and Neno Academy, helping the Pride win 9-3.

“It was right over the heart of the plate and I just put a good swing on it,” Smith said.

Playing against academy teams of the Phillies, Astros, Dodgers and Nationals made for a treasured excursion to the Caribbean. Many of the Astros Academy players that Hofstra faced are ticketed for Single-A or Double-A clubs this year.

“We played a lot of pro guys, so it was a great experience,” Smith recalled. “I mean, it was really cool. I’m super thankful that Hofstra let us go down there and do that.”

The 6-foot-0, 215-pound catcher was also thankful to get a first-pitch fastball in his hot zone from a Mejia and Neno Academy relief pitcher, which he deposited over the fence in right-center.

“A lot of the pitchers down there throw the ball hard,” Smith said, “but they have trouble really pitching with off-speed or anything like that. So they throw a lot of fastballs, especially to get ahead in counts. He gave me one and left it a little bit up in the zone. Hit the ball hard and good things happen.”

Hitting the ball hard is something that Smith has been doing a lot of lately. That helps to explain why he has also been playing left field in the early going this spring for the Pride, a position where he hadn’t been since his Warwick Travel Ball days.

But with Hofstra, led by skipper John Russo, needing someone play in the outfield one day during practice, Smith grabbed his glove, played hard and proved he could handle it. Redshirt senior Teddy Cillis is one of their top outfielders, but he also pitches. So in games that he’s on the hill, the Pride has an opening at that spot.

“If you can swing the bat, they find a place to put you in the lineup, really,” Smith said. “Any way that I can get on the field and help the team win is great.”

That could include some games at catcher behind junior backstop Vito Friscia, perhaps for a mid-week game or two. The Pride also plays a lot of weekend four-game sets during the season.

“We play 56 games, that’s a lot for any position, especially catching,” Smith said.

Clearly, a lot of hours and hard work in the off-season with Hofstra first-year hitting coach Matt Wessinger — a former All-American at St. John’s University and a two-time draft selection of the Kansas City Royals in 2011 and Colorado Rockies in 2012 — is benefiting Smith.

“It’s nice to see that finally coming around to pay off,” he said. “We’ve been working on creating a fluid swing and using my momentum to hit the ball instead of being stagnant in the box — really getting my legs into my swing and just trying to be more loose and fluid. And one of the big things is trying to keep the bat in the hitting zone as long as possible.”

As a freshman, Smith appeared in 12 games, starting three, and batted .333 with an RBI double. In his collegiate debut, he was 4-for-4 against Troy.

Coming into this season, Smith was confident he’d have a better shot to be in the lineup. The former Warrior star felt like he worked hard in the off-season and was proving himself in practice.

“I kinda took it upon myself to make sure I was ready,” Smith said.

Although he went 0-for-5 while starting two games in left field and batting sixth during a pair of doubleheaders at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas last weekend, that didn’t tell the whole story.

“I hit the ball hard a few times — it just didn’t fall in,” Smith recalled. “But that’s baseball. One weekend, everything falls in. The next weekend, you can’t catch a break.”

Asked if he has any personal goals for himself this season, Smith said, “I don’t pay that much attention to batting average and stuff like that. If you talk to people who are baseball people, you know that the only thing that can do is hurt you because you start thinking and pressing, like, ‘You’ve got to get a hit.’ When I go up there, my goal is to hit the ball hard and help the team win. When the team wins, everybody does better.”

In 2017, the Pride finished 14-37 overall and 7-17 in the Colonial Athletic Association. But Smith said they have a “decent amount” of returnees and the mood of the team is very upbeat.

“We’ve got one main goal that’s to be hoisting the trophy at the end of the season, so any way we can get there, I’m all in,” Smith said. “There’s a great culture around the team this year, a lot of optimism. We’re ready for the conference and we’re ready to turn things around from last year.”

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