ACC Roundup: Catchers Collins, Smith Display Power

DURHAM, N.C.—Miami junior catcher Zack Collins isn’t the type to get frustrated, and even if he does happen to get frustrated, he certainly isn’t the type to show it. Collins is as even-keeled as they come, a stoic, consistent rock in the middle of the Hurricanes batting order. Opposing pitchers are content to pitch around him, and he’s content to take his walks—drawing 63 in 52 games this year. All of the 3-0 counts and four-pitch walks don’t get under his skin.

But the same can’t always be said for his head coach.

“I’ve gotten frustrated watching; he may not have, but I have,” Miami coach Jim Morris said, laughing. “One time, it was a 3-0 count and there wasn’t a guy in scoring position, there wasn’t two outs . . . and I let him swing.

“And he goes, ‘What are you doing? Why are you having me swing in this situation?'”

Collins showed exactly why on Wednesday, in the second day of the ACC Baseball Championship. Though it didn’t come in a 3-0 count, Collins muscled a 1-2 pitch over the blue monster at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in the eighth inning against Georgia Tech. It was an opposite-field blast—his 12th of the year—that didn’t land far from the iconic bull in left field.

“I’d like to win a steak,” said Collins, laughing, of missing the bull. “I wasn’t aiming for it. It was just a two-strike approach, trying to stay back. I hit the ball the other way, and I got the right pitch to do that and just put the barrel on it.”

Before that swing, Collins had a relatively quiet day—as did most of the Miami lineup. Georgia Tech lefthander Ben Parr entered the game with one out and the bases loaded in the first inning, and after a three-run first, he held the lefty-leaning Hurricanes scoreless through six innings. Righthander Jesse Lepore, for the Hurricanes, did the same.

But it’s hard to keep Collins bottled up for long. The lefthanded slugger is batting .380/.551/.658 with 12 home runs and 52 RBIs in 158 at-bats—one of the best offensive seasons in the conference and in the country. With his improved defense behind the plate this season, he’s surged up draft boards and is a surefire first-rounder come June.

“He’s got outstanding power to both fields, and that’s what makes him really a great threat as a hitter,” Morris said. “Not only is he selective; you’ve got to pitch to him, but when you do, sometimes you’re going to pay the price.”

Getting Jiggy With It

Collins wasn’t the only ACC catcher to show some muscle on Wednesday. Louisville junior catcher Will Smith hit two home runs, both to left center, and drove in five runs in the Cardinals’ 9-5 win over Wake Forest in the night game.

Smith has had a breakout year with the bat, hitting .373/.471/.582 with seven home runs in 134 at-bats after hitting just .242/.333/.331 in 178 at-bats last season. With his eye-popping offensive numbers, and with scouts pouring in to Louisville to see the likes of Corey Ray, Kyle Funkhouser, Zack Burdi and other draft-eligible Cardinals, Smith has caught the eyes of evaluators and is drawing significant draft interest himself.

A solid-average receiver with at least an average arm, Smith has benefited from catching the electric stuff found on Louisville’s pitching staff, highlighted by Burdi, who touched 99 mph Wednesday night. He isn’t expected to be a power hitter at the next level, but it’s difficult to ignore the seismic jump in his offensive performance this spring.

“I’m kind of seeing the ball well,” Smith said, “and a lot of guys are swinging it well all year, all the hard work we’ve put in in the offseason, and we’re playing well.”

Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell has spoken highly of Smith over the last couple of seasons, trying to sell him to USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team as an athletic, Buster Posey-type catcher. McDonnell has called Smith a future star on more than one occasion, even if the numbers haven’t always lined up. To see him put together the kind of season he’s had—and the kind of night he had Wednesday—doesn’t come as a surprise.

“I’ve seen this for three years now,” McDonnell said. “He maybe hasn’t put it all together in the springs, but I’ve seen him in the falls and the spring trainings and the weekend scrimmages where you go, ‘Man, this guy is a superstar.’

“I’m happy that the rest of college baseball gets to see what he’s doing …  For me it’s a joy to watch Will in this lineup, this older group of players that they’ve all gotten better. They’ve worked extremely hard, and they’ve gotten better, and that’s fun.”

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