GREENVILLE — Transitioning from high school to college hasn’t been a problem for former East Surry multi-sport athlete Tyler Smith.
Smith, whose high school credentials included multiple Player of the Year honors in both football and baseball, and All-Conference laurels in basketball as well as the other two sports, is making an enormous impact as a sophomore pitcher for East Carolina University, the nation’s 11th-ranked team going into the weekend.
After beginning his 2018 season in long relief for the Pirates, Smith entered ECU’s starting rotation on March 10 and has made five starts for the Pirates since then, winning four of them. On the season, he has a perfect 5-0 record with an ERA of 1.11, best on the team.
Smith, who was listed as one of the state’s best high school prospects in his senior year at East Surry, chose East Carolina over several other suitors. He has never lost a game at the college level, having gone 2-0 with a 3.95 ERA in 43.1 innings as a freshman. After his 2017 season, Smith played for the Bethesda Big Train in the Cal Ripken League, a summer league for college baseball players, and went 4-2 with a 2.60 ERA. He was the winning pitcher in the league championship game.
He made his first appearance of his sophomore season on Feb. 17, the Pirates’ second of a three-game series against Western Carolina. In this game, ECU jumped out to a quick early lead, but starter Jake Agnos was struggling, and after three innings, head coach Cliff Godwin pulled him in favor of Smith, who tossed four shutout innings and allowed just three hits. Smith was credited with the victory in ECU’s 10-2 win.
“Jake (Agnos) didn’t have his stuff today, but I told him if you are not going to pitch good, then make sure you do it when we score a lot of runs,” Godwin said at the time. “I thought Tyler did a nice job coming in and getting a quick 1-2-3 for us in the fourth inning and pitched well along with (Matt) Bridges and (West) Covington.”
Six days later, he was back on the mound in another important game, this one against No. 6-ranked UNC in Greenville. The Pirates held a 2-1 lead after six innings when Smith replaced starter Trey Benton. Smith closed the game out with three hitless innings and earned a save.
“We felt Tyler was a good match-up against (UNC’s) two, three and four hitters because they are kind of fastball guys, so that’s why we left him in there at the end,” Godwin commented.
He went on two earn two more saves on March 3 and 7 in wins over Missouri State and College of Charleston before being asked to start for the first time on the 10th at UNC Charlotte. He tossed six shutout innings in a 12-2 victory and went to 2-0 on the year.
He tossed 5.2 scoreless innings in his second start on March 18, this time in a 4-0 win over Maryland. He was less effective in his next start, on the 25th in an American Athletic Conference game against Central Florida. In this one, he allowed six hits and four runs (three earned) in three innings of work and left with the Pirates training 4-1. However, the ECU bats picked him up in the middle innings and the Pirates slugged their way to an 11-6 victory.
As for Smith, he recovered from his only shaky outing of the season with a dominant performance six days later, when No. 25 Wichita State was in town. The teams had split the first two games of the series and Smith got the call in the rubber match. He pitched into the eighth inning, allowing five hits, no walks, and most importantly, no runs. When he passed the mound duties to Ryan Ross, ECU held a 4-0 lead, and went on to win 5-0.
Smith and the Pirates were back in action on Friday and Saturday, making a long road trip across the country to Seattle for a series against Washington. The teams split a twinbill on Friday, and just like a week ago, it was up to the pride of East Surry to win the series for ECU.
Neither team scored for three innings, but the Huskies (14-14) got to Smith for one run in the bottom of the fourth inning. However, this seemed to wake the Pirates’ bats up. They quickly answered with three runs in the top of the fifth and another in the sixth. After a season-high 102 pitches, Smith left the game after seven complete innings, having allowed just three hits. A trio of relievers wrapped up ECU’s 7-2 victory.
On the season, Smith has allowed 30 hits in 40.2 innings, with 23 strikeouts and only eight walks. He has developed a reputation as a groundball artist, and only six extra-base hits have been hit off him all season, all of them doubles.
He’s done just as well in the classroom as on the diamond, having made the ECU Director of Athletics’ honor roll in each of the past two years.
East Carolina improved to 24-7 on the season and is second in The American to South Florida, which has one more league win than the Pirates. ECU was picked to finish fourth in a preseason poll of the league’s nine coaches, but now looks like it might be the favorite. USF is coming to town next weekend for a first-place showdown, and it’s likely that Smith will get the call in one of those games.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.