Georgia Tech’s Smith Excels With Turks
By Matt Jones
Daily News Record
(Photo by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
HARRISONBURG – Thomas Smith walked into Georgia Tech baseball coach Danny Hall’s office in the fall of 2011 just hoping for a chance. At 6 feet, 150 pounds, Smith wasn’t much to look at. In fact, he’s lucky Hall even gave him a look on the diamond.
“A lot of times, we don’t even have what I call try-outs at Georgia Tech,” Hall said. “But his summer coach had called me and told me that I should take a look at this kid.”
Two years later, Smith has turned into one of Hall’s most valuable players for a team that won 15 Atlantic Coast Conference games on its way to an NCAA tournament appearance this past spring.
Not bad for a walk-on.
In 19 games for the Harrisonburg Turks (18-6) this summer, Smith has continued to display the skills that convinced Hall to give him a chance at Georgia Tech. The rising junior — in his second stint with Harrisonburg — is batting .333, good for second on the Turks.
Smith is one of seven Turks named to this weekend’s Valley Baseball League All-Star Game. The others are pitchers Justin Camp (Auburn) and Chris Pike (Fordham), infielders Andy Perez (Duke), R.J. Perucki (Texas-San Antonio) and Mike Warren (Texas-San Antonio) and outfielder Eric Kalbfleisch (UNC-Greensboro).
Smith has also not committed an error in the field while manning several positions.
“He’s just a great team player,” said 12th-year Turks manager Bob Wease. “If you tell him to bunt, he bunts. If you tell him to play left field, he’ll play left field. He’ll do anything a coach wants.”
For now, Hall and Wease have positioned Smith primarily at second base. A shortstop at John Carroll High School in Fort Pierce, Fla., Smith said he feels most comfortable at second, although he’s also played at third base for the Turks this season.
“I think it’s good to learn every position,” Smith said. “It just gives the coach more flexibility with yourself and allows him to keep you in the lineup if he wants to fit someone else in. I’m learning third base, some outfield. The more reps I get at each, I think it’ll become more second nature like second base is to me.”
Smith did not have immediate success at Georgia Tech. Hall told Smith that opportunities would be given to higher-profile, recruited players, and that he would be redshirted as a freshman. None of this was a shock to the undersized Smith, who did not receive any scholarship offers out of high school.
“I wasn’t expecting to start when I walked on,” Smith said. “I was just hoping to make the team and maybe my second year hopefully fit in somewhere. Once I got in there and I saw that I could compete and play with everybody else, it gave me a lot of confidence.”
His opportunity came quicker than anyone could have imagined. With the Yellow Jackets a pedestrian 15-10 in late March, Hall decided to make a change after a 5-3 midweek loss at home to Georgia Southern.
“All of a sudden we got to the point where based on the way he had played in the fall, we said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to give this guy a chance to play,’” Hall said. “He got in the lineup, and he never came out of the lineup.”
Smith went 1-for-2 with two walks and a run scored in his first start. He would go on to start the remaining 38 games for Tech, which won the ACC tournament title.
In his first ACC start, Smith and the Yellow Jackets faced former Duke ace Marcus Stroman, a future first-round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays. Smith went 2-for-3 against Stroman, scoring the game’s only run in a 1-0 Tech win.
“That was a big deal for me because I went to a camp at Duke my senior year of high school and they told me I wasn’t good enough to play for them and stuff like that,” Smith said. “I kind of wanted to go out and show them I could play at the level that they played at. I went out there with a little more motivation. It turned out all right, I guess.”
Smith finished his freshman season at Tech hitting .302 with 38 hits in 126 at-bats before playing the summer with the Turks. In Harrisonburg, he hit .289 in 36 starts.
Even after Smith’s success as a freshman, his second base job went to 11th-round draft pick Matt Gonzalez to start the 2013 season at Georgia Tech. Hall, still tinkering with his lineup midway through the season, decided to give the walk-on another shot.
“Thomas was kind of just a role player again,” Hall said. “Then about halfway through, we decided we needed to put him back in there and he never came out of the lineup again. He’s just one of those guys that plays the game the right way.”
Smith’s biggest challenge might be off the field. A mechanical engineering major at Tech, his social life has taken a backseat to the rigors of his schoolwork.
“He spends hours and hours a day doing his homework,” said Connor Lynch, a former catcher at Georgia Tech and current Turk. “He doesn’t really go out much, but whenever we see him out, it’s always awesome because we’re pumped that he’s there.”
Not the most gifted athlete, Smith has worked the past two years to get stronger, building his weight up to 170 pounds. “Smitty,” as his teammates call him, has come a long way for a walk-on.
“I think he’ll certainly go into it as our starting second baseman,” Hall said. “Being a junior and the way he plays and the way he goes about his business, I think he’ll have a chance to be one of our leaders.”