Like a basketball player who can't miss a shot, Charleston RiverDogs pitcher Caleb Smith was in the zone.
Only for Smith, it meant that just about every pitch he threw last Thursday night against the Delmarva Shorebirds was a strike.
Using mainly fastballs, especially in the first few innings, the left-hander from Huntsville, Texas, struck out 13 batters in just six innings of work. He allowed only three hits and walked one batter.
The 13 strikeouts are the most by a RiverDogs pitcher in one game since the ballclub became a New York Yankees affiliate in 2005. Charleston right-hander Rafael DePaula struck out 12 last summer to set the record. Former RiverDogs pitchers like Phil Hughes, Shane Greene, Brett Marshall, D.J. Mitchell and Andrew Brackman, all of whom went on to throw in the major leagues, never struck out as many batters in a single game as Smith.
"He had all three pitches working really well for him," said Charleston RiverDogs pitching coach Carlos Chantres. "He was spotting his fastball and putting it right where he wanted all night, and then he was able to work in his changeup and slider very effectively. It was a pretty impressive outing for Caleb. He had them off-balance all night and they had a tough time hitting him."
On Monday, the former Sam Houston State University star was named the South Atlantic League pitcher of the week.
There were moments during the game against the Shorebirds when Smith's focus was so intense he couldn't hear the crowd, the coaches from the bench or even his own teammates on the field.
"I just blocked everything else out," Smith said. "There was no sound. I couldn't hear anybody. I was pretty dialed in all game. That's probably the best game I've had as a professional."
At Sam Houston State, Smith was a fixture in the Bearkats' starting rotation his first two years. As a sophomore, he went 8-6 with a 3.23 earned run average.
His effectiveness on the mound fell dramatically in his junior season. Smith said he lost his focus because of all of the distractions associated with the MLB draft. As a result, he walked 60 batters.
"I let the whole process get to me," Smith said. "You hear so many different things and you start believing what people are saying to you and then you stop pitching the way you are supposed to. It's tough to stay focused. I didn't pitch as well my junior year as I had hoped."
Still, he was taken in the 14th round by the Yankees last June.
"The draft didn't go like I had hoped, I wanted to go higher, but I was ready to start my professional career," Smith said. "I had played three years of college ball, had experienced college and I felt like I was ready for the next chapter in my life."
The transition from college to the professional level was seamless for Smith last summer. In 472/3 innings with Staten Island, the Yankees' short-season Class A club, Smith compiled a 1.89 ERA while striking out 52 and walking just 15. Whatever control issues he had during his junior season at Sam Houston State had vanished.
"I think once I got past all the draft stuff, got that out of the way, and was able to settle down and just pitch, everything fell into place," Smith said. "I was more relaxed on the mound. I was challenging hitters. I was back to the way I was pitching when I was a freshman and sophomore."
Smith has been just as impressive with the RiverDogs, going 2-1 with an 0.89 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 201/3 innings.
"Caleb has three pitches that he can throw for strikes anytime in the count," Chantres said. "He's thrown the ball well, especially in his last two starts."
If Smith continues to dominate hitters in the SAL, he might not remain in Charleston for long.
"Obviously, I want to move up to Tampa (the Yankees' high-A team) and eventually make the big leagues," Smith said. "But that's out of my control. The only thing I'm concerned about is getting better each day and if that happens everything else will take care of itself."