Two weeks ago Josh Smith wasn’t sure he’d play baseball again this season.
The painful back spasms that were a precursor for the stress reaction in his vertebrate had apparently returned, and just a few days before he was supposed to return to the lineup no less. Doubled over in pain, he and everyone else in the program feared the worst.
“It was devastating for sure,” Smith said. “I’m not going to say it was easy because it wasn’t. Me and my family talked about if this was something more serious than a muscle, I might have to redshirt and just call it a year. But I never gave up.”
An MRI later on in the week showed the spasms to be entirely muscular. The bone had fully healed, despite the fact that his back remained tender. LSU returned to wait-and-see mode as Smith was once again shut down from all baseball activities for another week.
That changed when LSU went on the road and got swept at South Carolina. Smith, who watched all three games at his apartment with injured roommates Caleb Gilbert and Eric Walker, texted LSU coach Paul Mainieri that he was ready to play this week.
“That’s me just being a competitor and wanting to get out there really bad,” Smith said. “It’s kind of tough for me to handle the sweep after South Carolina and kind of thought the guys needed a little spark to get us back in it. I couldn’t really take it so I sent him a text.”
Smith’s back had felt strong enough to go hit in the cages on Sunday. He figured he could get back for the pivotal series at Ole Miss looming on the horizon. Mainieri surprised him a bit by asking if he’d like to play against Lamar, and after getting some off-day work in on Monday, Smith said yes.
Seeing Smith’s name penciled atop the lineup and at third base alone came as an emotional lift for a program coming off its worst week in recent memory. He was supposed to get an at-bat, maybe two, and play three-to-five innings in the field.
Nobody, Smith included, knew what to expect. He hadn’t taken such a long break from baseball in at least five years. He took a week off last summer before playing in the Cape Cod League, and he remembered Matt Beck, pitching for a rival team, striking him out in his first at-bat.
It had been 65 days and 38 games since Smith went down. He went 2-for-3 with a dramatic solo home run and made his only play in the field, surprising himself even with his apparent lack of rust.
“Honestly I came out here and wanted to just two two-or-three at-bats and see some pitches,” Smith said. “Never in a million years would I have thought I was going to hit a home run. It’s crazy.”
LSU looked like a completely different team in rolling Lamar 8-0 to get its confidence back after a disastrous week.
Obviously the degree of difficulty will be ratcheted up considerably as LSU heads to Oxford for a date with the SEC West-leading Rebels, but coaches and players alike hope Smith’s return can be the jumping off point for another stretch run.
“You can’t imagine that one player can make that kind of a difference for a team,” Mainieri said, “but Josh is one of those kinds of players.”
Of course it’s risky to pin too much pressure on a player, even one of Smith’s considerable talents, who is coming off two months spent on the shelf.
It’s nothing short of amazing that he homered after not facing live pitching for all that time, but that doesn’t mean LSU can pencil him in for two hits a night going forward.
“It’s amazing how one player’s presence can change the whole complexion of a team,” Mainieri said. “Not in my wildest dreams did I dream that Josh would play as well as he did.”
The coach continued: “I just think it’s a little much to expect him to get two-or-three hits every game. I hope he does. I hope he’s hot right through the rest of the season, but you hate to put so much responsibility on one set of shoulders.”
Even setting aside his bat, which will go through ups and downs like everyone else, Smith’s return makes a two-fold impact. He can be a more vocal presence now that he’s back in the mix. Mainieri has frequently lamented his team being “too quiet” this season.
Perhaps more importantly, it allows LSU to deploy quiet the defensive infield. Smith and Hal Hughes gobbled up every ball they could on the left side of the infield Tuesday, and Smith’s return allowed LSU to move Austin Bain back to first base, where he turned in a pair of web gems.
“We’re trying to lock it down over there,” Smith said. “You all saw the plays (Hughes) made over there. He’s unreal. In my opinion, he’s the smoothest shortstops in the league and one of the best in the country.”
For the first time in a long time, LSU isn’t playing anybody out of position in the infield. That’s a big relief for a coach who is kept up at night by the thought of errors in the infield.
Will that be enough to overcome a season of road woes in Oxford this weekend and begin another May push? Only time will tell.