From Carolina to Coral Gables

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Jake Smith grew up in the heart of Tar Heel country, but he is ready to dominate for the Miami Hurricanes.

The right-handed pitcher was born and raised in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he starred at Chapel Hill High School. Despite spending his entire life surrounded by Carolina Blue, Smith always wanted to do something different with his baseball career. But the 6-foot-5 fireballer admits he never envisioned himself playing in Coral Gables.

“If you asked me two years ago, I probably wouldn’t have been thinking I’d be down here in Miami right now,” Smith said.

Originally committed to UNCW, Smith was selected in the 21st round (pick No. 617) of the 2018 MLB Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. A bit of a late bloomer, Smith decided to head to junior college in Florida instead and enrolled at Chipola College as a true freshman.

He had success as a reliever there before transferring to the State College of Florida for the 2020 season. That is where his career really took off.

“I kind of wanted to get away from home. I’d been in Chapel Hill all of my life and I wanted to experience something different,” Smith said.

Smith was impressive in his sophomore campaign, going 5-1 with a 1.57 ERA and 59 strikeouts over 40.0 innings pitched. As his star began to rise, major college programs noticed and expressed interest in Smith. Miami was one of the first schools to connect with him, with recruiting coordinator Norberto Lopez and pitching coach J.D. Arteaga developing a relationship with a pitcher who had blossomed into an imposing force on the mound.

“I was talking to the coaches before I came down on a visit and we built a great connection,” Smith said. “Then knowing all the success J.D. has had in developing pitchers was something that was really attractive to me, along with getting to join such a successful program. Beyond baseball, I loved the school, too. My little hesitation was just not knowing what it’s like in Miami.”

After two seasons of JUCO baseball in Florida, Smith knew he loved playing and living in the warm weather. He had some doubts about living in a major city after spending his life in smaller cities like Chapel Hill, Marianna, Fla., and Sarasota, Fla., but Smith’s fears subsided when he experienced the University of Miami and Coral Gables firsthand.

“When I thought of Miami, I thought of some huge place in the middle of a city,” Smith said. “It turns out it wasn’t at all what I had imagined and Coral Gables is this beautiful area that is nothing like the middle of a major city. I came down on a visit and fell in love with it here. The field was beautiful and the campus was beautiful. I was talking to the coaches a lot and I especially talked to J.D. a lot. I knew after I came down here on my visit that this is the place I wanted to be. They offered me when I was down here and I knew I wanted to be a Hurricane.”

Smith came to Miami in the spring of 2020 and the Hurricanes were ranked among the best teams in America. He got to see the campus, familiarize himself with Mark Light Field and meet some potential future teammates. The trip sealed the deal for Smith, convincing him that The U was the perfect place for him.

“The day I was here, everything was so gorgeous,” Smith said. “I liked that it was a smaller campus with smaller classrooms, so I knew I could do well on the academic side of things. And then the field is beautiful and the baseball program has had so much success. I fell in love with everything.”

While he committed to Miami, Smith becoming a Hurricane was not a sure thing. As a hard-throwing, projectable 6-foot-5 right-hander with swing and miss stuff, Smith was a very intriguing prospect for professional teams ahead of the 2020 MLB Draft.

“He’s a guy that we’re very fortunate to have with this five-round draft because if it was more than that, we might not have gotten him,” head coach Gino DiMare said. “He was one of those guys that was right on the edge of possibly being taken. I know the pro guys were thinking about signing him and if they came up with the right number, they probably could have. Thank goodness, I think, he felt his value is higher than what they said. Coming to Miami, if he pitches the way we think he can pitch, he’s a guy that has got a chance to go very, very high in the draft and make a lot of money. Getting him is a big, big, big sign for us. It’s absolutely huge.”

Smith’s arrival in Coral Gables comes at a perfect time for both the right-hander and the Hurricanes. Miami just lost all three weekend starters to professional baseball and is looking to replace one of the top pitching rotations in school history. Adding a player with the ability and experience Smith possesses will give Miami an excellent option as it looks to reload its weekend rotation.

“Having a guy like Jake, he’s a frontline guy and the expectations for him are extremely high,” DiMare said. “We expect him to be one of our weekend guys. It’s absolutely a benefit that he has the experience, he’s an older guy and he has a lot of ability.”

“We hope we can continue his success and his development,” Arteaga added. “We got him from that JUCO level, which in the state of Florida is very good. He’s got a great combination of pitchability and arm strength and athleticism. Everything is wide open and he’s a guy that could earn himself a starting role. We expect him to come in and challenge and earn one of those weekend spots.”

While he certainly has the stuff to be an ace, nothing is guaranteed and no role will be handed to anyone in a Hurricanes uniform. Playing time is always earned and not given in Coral Gables, but Smith is eager to see how the competition for the open pitching spots will play out.

“Miami is known for having a winning program and we’ve got a lot of great arms coming in,” Smith said. “It’s going to be fun to be out there and compete to get a spot. Wherever we pitch, whenever we pitch, it’s going to be awesome. Everybody is hungry to get one of those weekend spots after all the guys got drafted and went pro from last year’s team. The spots are open, so it’s going to be fun competing to see who earns those roles.”

Smith, who is majoring in sport administration at Miami, believes his time playing in the ultra-competitive Florida JUCO circuit will help him as he transitions to playing Division I baseball for the Hurricanes.

“I think playing in JUCO in Florida is definitely going to help me a lot as I come into the ACC,” Smith said. “I look at myself from high school to where I am now and I’ve learned so much these past two years about how I’ve got to pitch to batters and what I’ve got to do differently to be successful. It’s a whole different way of playing the game from high school. I’ve definitely learned a lot about how to play baseball, so I think it’s going to help me transition a lot.”

He got a brief taste of what Division I is like last year when his team traveled to Tallahassee, Fla., to face Florida State in a fall game. The experience gave Smith something to build off as he begins his Miami career.

“I got to face some of the better hitters and gain an understanding of what it takes to succeed against them,” Smith said. “It was a cool experience, just the fact that you’re at the big stadium and there are a lot of fans there. It was a lot different than the JUCO environment. You knew the players were good. They’re not there to mess around and they’re there to win. It was definitely a different environment, but I loved it so that’s why I’m excited that this year every game is going to kind of be like that.”

Arteaga loves Smith’s competitiveness. The right-hander has a “refuse to lose” attitude that he carries with him in everything he does, whether that is pitching, working out or training. Smith always wants to be the best and that is something that Arteaga believes has helped make him successful in his career.

“The track record of success he’s had along the way is exciting,” Arteaga said. “Junior college guys are a little more proven than a high school player just because they’ve played at a little bit higher level and are usually a little bit more physically mature. It’s not Division I baseball, but it is a much higher level than the high school level. We’re definitely excited to have him because he’s had success and he brings experience. It might not be experience in a Miami way, but it is experience, and he has excelled. We are excited to see how he continues to develop here.”

“I’m a competitor. I love to win,” Smith remarked. “That’s the biggest thing I’d say about my style of pitching is that I’m a power pitcher and I am a competitor. Ever since I was little, I always wanted to win no matter what we were doing. If I was just playing dodgeball in elementary school, I wanted to be the last guy standing. When I was playing soccer back when I was a little kid, I always wanted to win and I did everything I could to make sure I wasn’t on the losing team. That mentality carries over to pitching and baseball, where I am always giving everything I can to help my team win.”

The beginning of Smith’s career at Miami got off to an unusual start, as the Hurricanes began the school year with a bunch of new protocols due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Players had to do a lot of work on their own before the start of fall practice, but Smith adjusted easily to that after having plenty of experience working on his craft without supervision.

“I’m really adjusted to that just because I was at a junior college the last few years and at junior college you don’t really have a strength coach and in the fall we didn’t really do a whole bunch as a team, so it’s kind of a lot of work on your own,” Smith said. “You’ve got to be really self-motivated and do a lot of things on your own in JUCO. Nobody’s pushing you to do anything you’ve got to do. You’re going to have practice for a few hours and then whatever else you do, you do on your own. I’m used to just working on my own and pushing myself. Having that experience really helped me during the whole COVID time where we had to do things on our own and without coaches.”

With fall practice finally underway, Smith and his teammates get to work with Miami’s coaches and that is something the tall hurler is very excited about.

“I can’t wait to see what working with J.D. can do for me as a pitcher. I know he is one of the best pitching coaches in America and I am glad I get to learn from him,” Smith said. “I never had a pitching coach until last year in JUCO. Last year, my pitching coach helped me out tremendously. Sometimes I had a little bit of command issues and he just tweaked a few things and got me right. I think I only walked eight guys in the 40 innings I pitched. Knowing what a pitching coach can do for a player, I am excited to see what J.D. can do because I’ve seen all his success throughout the years.”

"I knew after I came down here on my visit that this is the place I wanted to be. They offered me when I was down here and I knew I wanted to be a Hurricane.”

Jake Smith

Smith knows he is expected to play a key role in the Canes’ success this season and the right-hander is up to the challenge. He knew the standard of excellence at Miami is a high one and he is motivated to be a difference-maker for the Hurricanes.

“The expectations here at Miami are to go to Omaha every year. Gino, J.D., Lopes and everyone makes sure we know that every day,” Smith said. “It’s awesome knowing that we’ve got a great team and a great shot of getting there, but we know we have to work for it.

“It’s a winning program here and I’m just honored to be a part of it,” Smith added. “It’s an honor to be able to wear a Miami baseball t-shirt, but I know I have to work hard to live up to the tradition of success here. All my family and my buddies back home know Miami is one of those top programs, so it’s amazing to be part of it now. But just being here isn’t enough. I want to make a difference and help this team get to Omaha and win a championship.”