'Over-the-top Dwight' Smith Jr. living up to his nickname during hot start with Orioles

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Dwight Smith Jr. spent 7½ years with the Toronto Blue Jays organization, the good kind of years where every mention of him to a former teammate brings a smile to their face.

They tell of a teammate who was affectionately called "Over-the-top Dwight" because of his unwavering confidence in himself, and of someone with a natural hitting ability that produced line drives and the "Smitty Knocks" that found holes like only his could.

But all that combines to create a player who they're glad has the opportunity he’s received with the Orioles — and who they knew would take advantage of it the way Smith has.

"I mean, he deserves it," Blue Jays first baseman Rowdy Tellez said. "He's done nothing but hit in the minor leagues, and play well. I'm really happy for him."

Smith, 26, who has started and batted second in all seven Orioles games this young season, is the only player on the team with a hit in every game. He was acquired in early March for international bonus pool slots from the Blue Jays, who designated Smith for assignment March 5 despite his .293 average in parts of two major league seasons and his track record of minor league success. That the Orioles would install him as their everyday left fielder and be happy with what they saw is exactly what his former teammates expected would happen.

"It was one of those things where when it happened, everybody was like, 'Man, we lost Dwight,' " Tellez said. "But at the same time, any team that picks him up, Dwight is going to be in the big leagues, outside one or two teams. We knew Dwight was going to be in the big leagues.

"As a teammate, it sucked. As a friend, all of us — I can say it was a strong consensus that we were happy for Dwight. We knew that he was going to get an opportunity somewhere else, and we always knew he was going to capitalize."

That confidence is usually reserved for Smith himself, who has been around baseball since the mid-1990s and knows what it takes to belong thanks to his World Series-winning father Dwight Sr., a former Oriole. He learned how to be a pro from his father, refined it by adopting future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera's mantra of never taking a pitch off, and proved it to his teammates in the Blue Jays organization for nearly a decade.

"I always wanted to show the guys I was never going to give up an at-bat, or take a play off in the field. It's harder said than done," said Smith, Toronto’s fourth first-round draft pick in 2011. "To be able to do that every day is tough to do. I just wanted to leave that impression on everyone who watched me play."

The over-the-top part comes from Smith's belief that he can do anything that's asked on a baseball field. Playing a fast runner that night? Smith will tell you he'll throw him out.

"I'd say, 'Dwight, you need three cutoffs at third base to get to home. You need people in the middle.' And he'd say, 'No man, I'll throw him out,' ” Tellez said. “And he always did. He always led our team in assists. He's got a real accurate arm.”

But Smith said his confidence comes from a simple place.

"It just came from over time — just me accomplishing something," he said. "Once I've done it once, you know you can do it again. I feel like it just grew as time went by, but I'd say from my dad, too. My dad is a pretty confident guy, a confident person. I take that mentality from him."

That's also where his uncanny ability to hit comes from. He laughs when he says he's "hit in the cage quite a lot," no doubt taking turns after his big league father before he was old enough for Little League.

"I always had good hand-eye coordination as a kid," Smith said. "I just worked a lot, since I was 4 years old. ... Going all them days with my dad to the field is paying off."

Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen, who spent time in the minors and majors with Smith, saw that from the other side in preparing with the Toronto pitching staff to face the Orioles this week.

"He's a scrappy hitter, man," Jansen said. "He makes good contact, he uses the whole field. Playing with him, hitting behind him a lot of the times, you get to see just how good of a hitter he is. He's always been a guy who hits top of the order, makes good contact. He has some sneaky power. Just a good player."

It was Jansen who relayed the concept of “Smitty Knocks” — "he'd be the guy to find the hole with a 10-bouncer through the infield," Jansen said — but Smith pushes back.

"They always bring up ‘Smitty Knocks,’ but they don't take into consideration I hit a line drive two other times,” Smith said, shaking his head. “I get one ‘Smitty Knock’ — there's not many I don't square up. It's going to happen. Everybody does it."

Smith will be encouraged by the opinion of one man who doesn't think he's lucking into anything: Orioles manager Brandon Hyde.

Hyde has only had Smith for a month, but sees so much of what the young outfielder wants to be known for.

"It started really the last week of spring training, where he's squaring a lot of balls up," Hyde said. "He's sticking with the plan, taking great at-bats. … I just love the professionalism, the bat, how he covers the plate, grinds every pitch out. He's off to a great start."

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