Former South Carolina star Justin Smoak is having, arguably, the best year of his major league baseball career at the ideal time. His friend and former coach, Monte Lee, is not surprised.
Smoak, in his first season with the Blue Jays, finished the regular season hitting .226 with 18 homers and a career-high 59 RBIs. He helped the Blue Jays reach the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Toronto faces Texas in the ALDS, beginning Thursday afternoon.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he’s having one of the best seasons of his career, because he’s playing for a contender. He was always a guy that tends to step up when there is more on the line,” Lee, now the head coach at Clemson, said. “It doesn’t surprise me that he’s having such a great year for the Blue Jays. He knows that he’s playing for the postseason by playing in that organization. I’m really happy for him.”
Smoak has had an up-and-down career since being drafted by the Texas Rangers in the first round of the 2008 MLB draft. He made his MLB debut in 2010, playing 70 games before being traded to the Seattle Mariners. He remained in Seattle through the 2014 season and was claimed off waivers by Toronto last October.
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In four full seasons with Seattle, he hit 61 homers and had 186 RBIs but never played more than 132 games. During his final year with the Mariners, Smoak hit .202 with seven homers and 30 RBIs in 80 games.
A change of scenery has proven to be good for Smoak, who had the highest OPS and WAR of his career.
Lee, who was an assistant at South Carolina during Smoak’s time with the Gamecocks, said talent has never been a problem for the Goose Creek native.
“He’s one of those guys that you want on your team. He’s a team guy, he’s a competitor. He’s a winner,” Lee said. “He’s a guy that wants to win and cares about the ball club. He’s just a great guy to have on your club. He’s a switch hitter. He’s got some power from both sides of the plate.”
Smoak, who was a consensus All-American his junior year, hit .383 with 23 homers and 72 RBIs his last season in Columbia. He set school records for home runs (62), RBIs (207), walks 151 and total bases (485) at South Carolina, despite leaving after his junior year. He started every game at first base during his three-year career at USC.
Because of his offensive statistics, Lee said, Smoak’s defense was often overlooked.
“He’s one of the best defensive first basemen that I’ve ever been around,” Lee said. “He’s got to go down as one of the best first basemen to ever play in the SEC. He was a star.”
In addition to facing his former team in the playoffs, Smoak will face a former teammate.
Sam Dyson and Smoak played together during Dyson’s freshman season when the right-hander went 8-0 with a 4.09 ERA. Dyson helped the Gamecocks win their first College World Series title in 2010.
Dyson was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft by the Toronto Blue Jays.
He made his debut in Toronto in 2012 before being claimed off waivers by the Marlins in 2013. Texas traded for Dyson earlier this season, and he has pitched well for the Rangers.
In 31 1/3 innings, Dyson is 2-1 with a 1.15 ERA. He has 30 strikeouts, four walks, and has been a valuable member of the Rangers bullpen.
No matter what happens over the next several days, a former Gamecock will advance to play in the American League Championship Series.
Toronto vs. Texas
AL Division Series is best-of-5:
Thursday: Texas (Gallardo 13-11) at Toronto (Price 18-5), 3:37 p.m. (FS1)
Friday: Texas (Hamels 7-1) at Toronto (Stroman 4-0), 12:45 p.m. (MLBN)
Sunday: Toronto (Estrada 13-8) at Texas (Lewis 17-9), 8:10 p.m. (FS1)
x-Monday: Toronto (Dickey 11-11) at Texas (Holland 4-3), (FOX or FS1)
x-Oct. 14: Texas at Toronto (FOX or FS1)