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May 12, 2011Since being promoted to the major leagues last season, former South Carolina first baseman Justin Smoak had been trying find his groove.
After more than 130 big league games, it appears he has.
Thirty-seven games into the 2011 season - approaching the quarter pole of the 162-game schedule - Smoak has become the top long ball threat and run producer for the Seattle Mariners with a.283 batting average (30-for-106), five homers and 22 RBI.
Nearly one-half of his hits (14) have gone for extra bases.
In addition to leading the struggling Mariners (16-21, 4.5 games out of first in AL West) in homers and RBI, Smoak has posted a team-high nine doubles and .509 slugging percentage. He's second on Seattle with 20 walks and 54 total bases.
All that despite missing almost a week of action to return to the Palmetto State following the untimely passing of his father, who was 54. Smoak enjoyed a close relationship with his dad, who attended many of his games, home and away, when Smoak was starring for the Gamecocks.
Yet, Smoak has managed to put aside the obvious emotions of his father's death to continue performing well for the Mariners.
"I'm not trying to do too much," Smoak said recently in a interview with 107.5 FM The Game. "In this game, you can get caught up in that. I'm just trying to make it simple and work on some things and try to get better every day."
Smoak, drafted in the first round by Texas in 2008 following a standout career at South Carolina, was traded by the Rangers to the youthful Mariners last July in the heavily-publicized Cliff Lee deal. He appeared in 70 games with eight homers and 34 RBI for the Dallas-based club.
As a former highly-touted first-round round selection, Smoak's arrival in Arlington was anticipated for more than a year, but Rangers fans only got a quick glimpse of his vast potential before he was dealt away.
"It was learning experience, definitely," Smoak said. "I learned the business side of things. I didn't have the year I would have liked to have had (.209 avg with Rangers), I felt I learned a lot. But I finished well and it has carried over into this year."
Smoak haunted his former teammates by going 7-for-12 with a homer and three RBI during a recent three-game series (May 3-5) win over Texas in the Emerald City.
Because of power numbers, Smoak has been promoted from fifth to third in the Seattle batting order. Clearly, the Mariners have placed a lot of faith in a player with 131 career games under his belt.
"It doesn't really matter whether I'm hitting fifth, fourth or third," Smoak said. "You're still going to get pitched to the same. I just have to have the same mentality every at-bat. It comes with the territory. I'm just excited to be here and be with these guys. We have a good group of guys and a good staff. If we just continue to play hard, we'll find ways to get it done and win some games."
The Mariners have struggled in recent years and are clearly in a rebuilding mode. Smoak is one of several promising young players Seattle have pinned their hopes on. The pitching staff is led by All-Star and reigning Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez, who captured the most prestigious award for hurlers even though his won-lost record was just 13-12 in 2010. However, he posted an impressive 2.27 ERA with 232 strikeouts in 249.2 IP and 30 quality starts for a last-place club.
"We definitely have the pitching staff," Smoak said. "Our pitching is going to keep us in games. Just watching him pitch, Felix has been awesome. He's been unbelievable. He goes right after guys. He has some of the nastiest stuff I've seen. So, if we can find a way to get key hits in key situations, we'll find a way to win ballgames."
Who is the best opposing pitcher Smoak has faced? He named Yankees hurler C.C. Sabathia as being among the top hurlers he's faced.
"The guys is an absolute monster," Smoak said. "He throws hard and he has a really good slider. He's probably the one guy that I know every time I face him it's going to be a battle."
As someone who grew up in the South and started his major league career in the Lone Star State, Smoak is still adjusting to the climate and lifestyle in the Pacific Northwest.
"Being from the Southeast and going to the far Northwest was certainly different," Smoak said. "It was a transition I'm making now. I'm trying to make the best of it. It's not South Carolina, I'll tell you that. It rains at some point every day and it's cold. But we have a roof on the stadium and it's still baseball. It's fun playing in the heat and breaking a sweat."
Even though he was playing baseball every day in the big leagues, Smoak acknowledged being caught up in the excitement of USC's magical run to the 2010 national championship.
"It was awesome. I was excited for everybody in Gamecock Country and Coach Tanner and his staff and the players," Smoak said. "I had an opportunity to play with some of the guys who were there. It was good to see it happen. I was in LA when we were playing the Angels and in-between every inning I was running back to the clubhouse to see what the score was. They finally pulled it off and I was just as excited as the players, the coaches and the fans that were there."
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