Smith provides leadership, intangibles for Beavers
KEIZER -- Exhibit One of Tyler Smith's value to Oregon State's baseball team was in full view Wednesday night at Volcanoes Stadium.
The senior shortstop went 3 for 4 with a walk, scored two runs and made two sterling plays in the field as the sixth-ranked Beavers (38-8) got past the University of Portland 4-3.
Without Smith, victory would simply have not been achieved on a night when the Pilots (17-29) gave the Beavers all they could handle before losing their 18th in a row in the intra-state series.
"We saw some plays he made today that were unbelievable," said left-fielder Michael Conforto, like Smith a first-team All-Pac-12 selection last season. "He has a presence out there."
Smith led off the game with a sharp-hit single, doubled in the third and fifth innings and was robbed of a fourth basehit on Kramer Scott's diving grab in left field in the seventh.
At shortstop, Smith covered large chunks of real estate to flag down ground balls up the middle, throw across his body and make spectacular outs in the third and eighth innings.
"It gets overlooked a little how well Tyler plays defense," OSU coach Pat Casey said. "Those plays he made up the middle were outstanding."
The most welcome news Casey got last summer was that Smith and pitcher Matt Boyd would return for their senior seasons. After a 2012 season in which he hit .343 -- up 122 points from his sophomore campaign -- and was considered the best shortstop in the best conference in the country, the 6-foot, 195-pound Smith went unselected in the June major league draft.
"After I wasn't chosen by the 15th or 20th round, I knew I was coming back," Smith said. "I just used (the slight) as motivation. I knew I was going to be part of a great team this year, so I was excited to get back."
Even with sluggers Conforto and Dylan Davis and pitchers Boyd, Andrew Moore, Ben Wetzler and Scott Schultz on board, it's no stretch to call Smith the most valuable player on this Oregon State team.
"It's been awesome to have Tyler back," Casey said. "It's like having Boyd back on the pitching staff. They've both been great leaders for us."
"Tyler has given us a huge lift," said Boyd, who was chosen by Cincinnati in the 13th round last summer but didn't sign. "He's a leader on this team, a leader on the defense. He may not be the most vocal guy, but he leads by example. He busts his tail out there."
Smith divided last summer between Brewester of the Cape Cod League and Klamath Falls of the West Coast League and focused on defense. A solid shortstop a year ago has become one of the best in the nation this season.
"I've been working really hard on my range, getting better first steps to the ball," he said. "I'm feeling real good defensively."
Smith has also filled the leadoff spot in the order in recent weeks. The Beavers don't have a true leadoff man -- Smith is probably better-suited to bat in the 2-hole -- but he is hitting .326 with 32 runs scored, a .406 on-base percentage and nine stolen bases in 11 attempts.
When Smith was idled a dozen games in late March and early April with a broken left hand, Oregon State missed him at both the plate in the field. JC transfer Andy Peterson moved from second base to shortstop in the interim but has played much better defense at the former position.
"We found ways to win games without Smitty, and that was good," Casey said, "but we're not the same team without him."
"Defense is what we live by," Boyd said. "When you have a physical presence out there like Tyler Smith, it means everything."
Smith said it's the first injury that has kept him out for an extended period during his high school and college career.
"It was tough to sit and watch, and the defense was struggling a little bit when I was gone," he said. "Since I've been back, we've been pretty solid in the infield."
"We missed him a lot," Conforto said. "He left a huge hole. We all feel more comfortable when he's with us. He provides those intangibles. He's super talented and, if not our best hitter, one of them. He has a huge impact on the field and in the (batting) lineup for us."
The Beavers have equalled their best-ever record after 46 games (matching the 2005 team's start) entering a crucial three-game series at Stanford that begins Friday. They know they'll have to capitalize on offensive opportunities better than they did against the Pilots if they are to capture the series with the Cardinal.
"A good Pac-12 team is going to take advantage of some of those mistakes we made," Smith said. "We have to do better."