Former Gator focused on competing as soon as he gets a chance

07.21.2015 | By Randy Rosetta, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

Courtesy of: Randy Rosetta, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

College athletes range from one end of the spectrum to the other when it comes to self-confidence, especially when they're asked to describe themselves. Some are a little hesitant to be blunt, some don't mind it at all.

And then some guys just take the most direct route possible.

That's the path that Riley Smith, one of LSU's newest additions, is taking. Ask him to describe himself as a pitcher and the lanky Texan doesn't add a whole lot of bells or whistles.

"I compete," he said matter-of-factly.

Easy enough.

Smith is one of just four full-time pitchers in the Tigers' 2015 recruiting class, the only one who arrives from a junior college. And it wasn't just any old two-year layover waiting for the chance to play Division I, either.

In two seasons at perennial NJCAA powerhouse San Jacinto (Texas), Smith was a rotation regular with 13 victories over two seasons with 139 strikeouts in 149 innings.

Last year he steered through a mid-season slump to re-emerge as the Gators' ace and was on the mound for their NJCAA Regional Championship-clinching victory and then San Jac's World Series opener in Grand Junction, Colo. That didn't happen by accident.

"The thing about Riley is that he comes out every day with a plan to get better and be successful," said Gators' coach Tom Arrington, who pitched for Texas A&M in the mid-1980s. He has guided San Jac to the NJCAA World Series eight times in the last 11 years.

"At the end of his freshman year, we started counting on him as the ace of our staff. He was the kind of guy who had the ability to set the tempo in a playoff-type setting so we leaned on him."

Added Smith, "The year I had (last) year started off good, I hit a couple of rough patches and then whenever it came down to regionals, I showed up and was ready to compete. When it got to where we had to win or get sent home, I wanted the ball."

Which is what Smith got to start both games and he went out and did what a starting pitcher is supposed to do – gave his team a chance to win.

In the regional championship game, he limited Angelina College to a run on six hits in 6.2 innings of work as the Gators won 4-1 to punch their World Series ticket. True to his description, right after Smith allowed the run in the 5th inning, he got the final out of the frame on the next pitch and then struck out the side in the 6th – mowing down Angelina's 3-, 4- and 5-hole hitters on strikeouts, the last two swinging.

Facing McLennan Community College in the World Series, Smith logged a season-high-matching 7 innings, struck out 8, allowed seven hits and one walk and permitted only one earned run.

San Jacinto lost 3-1, but Smith kept his team close on the biggest stage of all.

"I'm a fastball guy; that's my best pitch," Smith said. "So I'm always going to challenge hitters and be a guy who is going to come at you until you prove you can hit me. If you can keep a fastball consistently below the knees, there aren't a whole lot of guys who can hurt you on that."

Delgado College coach Joe Scheuermann got an up-close look at Smith last fall when the Dolphins and San Jac met in a scrimmage. He also saw the incoming LSU righty at the NJCAA World Series in May, although Smith didn't pitch when the teams met in an elimination game.

What Scheuermann saw was a gritty kid that he thinks can make the transition to LSU quickly.

"He was consistently around 91-92 the day we faced him and had a power slider (84-85) and changeup that he was obviously pretty comfortable throwing," Scheuermann said. "He really attacked the strike zone against us and was aggressive.

"When I saw him pitch in the opening game of the World Series he was doing the same things -- attacking with his fastball and going to his secondary stuff when he needed to. He pitched really well. The thing I liked about him is that he threw hard, but he also threw hard in the strike zone. You can have a lot of success if you throw that hard and throw it for strikes consistently. I'm sure (Tigers pitching coach Alan Dunn) will help him develop his secondary stuff some more, but he has the right tools now. You can't teach them how to pitch 92, so the kid's got a good foundation to start with."

Twice last season, Smith took the mound against Region XIV rival Blinn College (a 2014 World Series team) and logged two of his strongest performances of the season. He went 6 innings in each game and gave up 7 hits and 2 runs while striking out 11 batters in 12 innings.

Those two games were part of a sophomore campaign when Smith went 7-2 with 85 strikeouts in 79 innings and a 2.96 ERA.

"The thing we always had to prepare for is that that he was going be aggressive with the fastball, so you had to be ready to hit it," said Blinn coach Harvey McIntyre, who played at Northwestern State in 1997-98. "He throws the fastball a lot and he does a great job commanding it. He's athletic, he competes and he attacks the strike zone and wasn't afraid to challenge hitters."

How could that all help Smith fit into LSU's plans in 2016?

On a pitching staff that figures to be loaded with talent and experience, Smith and fellow Texan Cole McKay are the two newcomers who should figure most prominently.

With his velocity, comfort throwing second and third pitches, and that competitive nature, Smith fits the mold that Dunn and Paul Mainieri want their pitchers to be. There are going to myriad roles to fill on a staff that will be built around Alex Lange, Jared Poche, Parker Bugg and 3 or 4 other rising sophomores.

That makes carving a role a challenge for Smith, but Arrington said that was part of the appeal that led him to LSU instead of TCU or Houston, the other two programs he considered most seriously.

Much like the hitters he faces, Smith doesn't intend to show up and not battle.

"I'm definitely coming here to try and be a starter," said Smith, who led San Jac with 15 starts in 2015. His 7 victories also paced the staff. "But the ultimate goal as a team is to go to Omaha, so wherever they need me to throw, whatever they need me to do, I'm going to work my butt off to be as good as I can be."

Tapping into his potential and finding ways to make it grow were on the agenda for Smith next year one way or another.

Pittsburgh chose him in the 31st round of the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft and continued to pursue him up until this week, with a club official making a last-ditch signing-bonus offer of $200,000 just a few days ago.

Knowing he would get a chance to work with a big-league-caliber pitching coach with whatever option he picked, Smith stuck with LSU.

"They called me a few days ago and re-offered some more money, but I told them I was staying," Smith said. "It came down to playing for the coaches here, especially Coach Dunn. He's the best pitching coach in the nation. It was either go and get a year's worth of work in with guys he taught or work directly with him and I picked working with him.

"I want to gain weight and get bigger so I can throw harder and build up the kind of stamina I need to be as effective as I can. Coach Dunn gave me the throwing program he wants me to follow, and I can't wait to get into that."

Which will go hand-in-hand with the different level of confidence that junior-college pitchers bring.

Two years as a starter at San Jac, and in Smith's case the go-to man, supplies a little different edge compared to a freshman stepping into the middle of a college diamond for the first time.

Being confident, mixed with knowing exactly what the challenge ahead is, are nice complements to those competitive juices that coarse through Smith's veins.

"I've had two years of experience, and I can honestly say that I'm 10 times better as a pitcher than I was coming out of high school," Smith said.

"I've matured a ton on the mound. You learn real quickly that you have to be a smart pitcher and not just a thrower against college hitters. Now, I'm going from this level, where you see a few great hitters, to knowing that every guy 1 to 9 in an SEC lineup is a great hitter, so you have to be ready to adjust and compete."