Smoak in groove with strong start to spring
Mariners notice as promising young first baseman produces at high level
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Justin Smoak senses something is different this spring. And it's not just the hot start he's off to with his early offensive power show in Arizona.
The Mariners first baseman has hit the ball hard from the start of camp and is batting .429 with a pair of home runs and six RBIs in his first six appearances, just what the doctor ordered for a youngster looking to carry over his late-season success from 2012.
But Smoak isn't alone this spring. On a club that has already hit more home runs than it did in each of its last three Cactus League seasons, Smoak can just be one of the cogs instead of the expected middle-of-the-order presence.
The influx of proven veteran hitters has created a new sense of confidence in a young group that got tossed prematurely into a sink-or-swim situation last year. Add in the natural maturation of those returning youngsters, and it's an interesting mix.
"It's just a different feeling in here than we've had," Smoak said. "I don't know if it's more confidence or just a different vibe, but we know what we can do as a team. It's something everybody here is excited about. Nobody's got us on any radar, so it's one of those things where we know what we're capable of doing, we've just got to go do it."
If Smoak continues producing on a consistent basis, the Mariners will be doing cartwheels. Manager Eric Wedge went out on a limb this offseason, putting his faith in the 26-year-old despite his disappointing 2012 season in which he hit .217 with 19 home runs and 51 RBIs in 132 games.
Even after general manager Jack Zduriencik traded for Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse, Wedge insisted Smoak would remain the frontrunner as his everyday first baseman heading into camp.
Smoak then came out firing this spring and hasn't let up. Even his 1-for-5 day in Thursday's 12-2 win over the Royals included an RBI double and another line drive that was a rocket right at the right fielder.
"I've felt good since I got here and it's one of those things where I just need to stay where I'm at," Smoak said. "I'm still working to iron out a few things out. It's still early. But at the same time, I feel like I'm in a good place."
Wedge sees a noticeable improvement in Smoak's batting approach this spring.
"He's so much more grounded up there at home plate," said the skipper. "A lot of balance. He's in a strong position to hit."
His teammates have noticed a difference as well. Last spring, Michael Saunders was the Mariners player everybody thought was finished after a disappointing 2011 season, but he came to camp with an aggressive attitude and grabbed hold of what figured to be his last opportunity with a breakout season.
Saunders understands Smoak's situation better than anyone.
"Don't give up on that guy," said Saunders. "He's got talent. And he's got a lot of confidence right now. It's one thing to have talent, but unless you know you belong, it's something totally different. That's something I learned last year. So I'm excited for him.
"He'll be the first to tell you he's had a couple down years, but I think he'll be the better for it," Saunders said. "Sometimes you have to go through the thick and thin first. I've been there. I've done it. I think you can learn a lot more from failure than success sometimes. He's coming back and showing us what he can do. He's going to be a good player and we need him to be a big part of what we're doing here."
Smoak likes the idea of being a part of something big. While he got off to the quick start this spring, the rest of the club has jumped aboard with at least one long ball in each of its first 14 games and the highest home run total and slugging percentage in the Cactus League.
"It's the old saying, 'Hitting's contagious,'" Smoak said. "When you've got a guy in front of you that is seeing four or five pitches and the next guy is seeing five or six, it makes the pitcher work. And then you're liable to get one out over the plate that you can drive. That's a difference."
So is the presence of veteran hitters like Raul Ibanez, Morse, Morales, Jason Bay and Robert Andino, whose lockers all surround Smoak's in the Peoria clubhouse.
The situation reminds Smoak more of his early days in Texas, when he could listen and learn and pick the minds of older teammates.
"No doubt," he said. "They're guys that have been around the game for a while, good guys to talk to and ask what are you thinking in this situation or that situation. And just watching them go about their business, you can tell they know what they need to do every day to get ready to play by game time.
"That's something the last couple years, we didn't really have. Now we've been here a while and I think we kind of had to learn on the run, which is not always a bad thing. It's not easy, but sometimes that's how you learn. You're in there, you've got to figure it out. But it's good to have these guys around now and it's been a good spring so far."
As for his own personal approach? Smoak is locked in, seeing pitches well, driving the ball and looking like the promising young switch-hitting first baseman the club felt it traded for in the Cliff Lee deal three years ago.
"I've got to just keep doing what I'm doing, really," he said. "Everything has been feeling good."