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March 30, 2012

New pitching style helps FSU's Gage Smith emerge

When new pitching coach Mike Bell arrived at Florida State last summer, he told every pitcher that they would start with a clean slate. Bell wouldn't even review film of how they performed in previous seasons so he wouldn't have any preconceived notions.

For the majority of the staff this meant they would not be punished for previous failures or mishaps, but for redshirt sophomore Gage Smith this meant a level playing field with a shot at playing time.

As a true freshman Smith received a redshirt and then going into his redshirt freshman season in 2011 he was cut from the 35-man roster for the year. But the Tallahassee native refused to give up on pitching for the Seminoles, returning in the fall to work with Bell and another shot at making the roster.

"I was really happy to hear that," Smith said of Bell's fresh start approach. "Of course a new slate is great for me not having any previous innings or experience. I think that helped me a lot just knowing it's a fair game out there."

The fresh start has paid off for both Smith and Bell this season as the right-handed submarine-style hurler is 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA and two saves in 13 appearances this season.

As Smith prepares to warm up in the bullpen this weekend as No .4 FSU (21-4, 8-1 ACC) host Virginia Tech (18-9, 2-7 ACC) for three games starting at 6 p.m. ET on Friday, it will just be another memorable moment during an already surreal season.

"I've been dreaming about this," said the former North Florida Christian star. "Growing up in Tallahassee obviously I wanted to be a Seminole my whole life and then to come and the first two years were kind of discouraging, but this year getting wins and saves it's a dream come true."

Initially when he was cut last season Smith contemplated not returning to FSU for another season, but his faith encouraged him to find the strength for another attempt.

"They offered and said I could come back if I wanted," he said of the FSU coaches. "At first I didn't want to, but I prayed a lot about it. I really just prayed hard and God told me he wanted me to come back. I wasn't really sure why at the time but I just decided to work hard at the time after praying about it and came back."

When he arrived back on campus this fall, Bell wanted to help Smith find a role in the bullpen by showing him that his unique delivery made him a prime ground-ball pitcher.

"One of the things I kind of challenged him with in the fall was 'Is (runners on) first and second with no outs a jam for you?' " Bell said. "He didn't really know to answer at first. What I wanted him to understand is he's a couple ground balls away from being out of an inning. That's what he is, a ground ball guy so first and second no outs shouldn't be a jam for him."

In his 14 innings this season Smith has just two earned runs on 12 hits and four walks to go with nine strikeouts.

He said the biggest difference for him has been a slight change in his throwing motion suggested by Bell to speed up his delivery as well as the development of his slider which has been effective on left-handed hitters.

"I feel like I can go out there and throw strikes whenever I want so I think that's just a big thing," Smith said. "Being able to throw backdoor sliders to lefties. That was one of the big things, not being able to face lefties or I was just more comfortable with righties because with lefties all I had was that fastball but now I'm able to throw that backdoor slider pretty comfortably and it feels good."

Bouncing back from not making the team in 2011 to the success Smith has had this year is not the only improbable turn Smith has had in baseball career.

Going into his senior year at NFC, Smith was not a high-profile prospect. One day he dropped his arm slot down during a recruiting showcase.

"I wasn't really getting a lot of offers from anywhere and I was at a showcase and I was throwing and I wasn't really that special out of all the people so I just decided to drop down out of nowhere," Smith said. "I think I hit 84 or 85 and then the slider happened to be really good and that's when all the scouts started writing stuff down."

After catching people's eyes with his new delivery, Smith worked with Tallahassee Community College head coach and former FSU pitching coach Mike McLeod on his new style, which ultimately helped him land an offer to sign with FSU.

Despite not logging innings for FSU during those first two seasons, Smith was able to get some experience during the summers as he pitched in the Alaska Baseball League in 2010 and for the DeLand Suns this past summer.

Those experience gave Smith the confidence he needed to return to campus on the fall and become the most improved player on the Seminoles' roster according to head coach Mike Martin.

"Gage has been a pleasant surprise," Martin said. "Probably the biggest improvement form one year to the next as any of the players on our team. He looked decent and the fall and we said 'Hey you never know this guy might get a couple of guys out.' Now the seventh, eighth inning we're ready to go get him at any time and not hesitate."



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