Baseball: This pitching arm has a glove

A pitcher is more than just an arm. After all, he has a glove for a reason.

Austin Smith is fully aware of that. He put both his pitching arm and glove to good use Sunday night, helping the North Fork Ospreys to a 3-1 defeat of the Westhampton Aviators in a Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League game cut short by lightning. The game was stopped one out into the bottom of the eighth inning when the home-plate umpire ordered both teams into their dugouts at Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic after a lightning strike. Moments later, the game was called.

It was a game that perhaps will be most remembered for a rare triple play by the Aviators and two heads-up fielding plays by Smith. Fielding may be the most overlooked aspect of the pitching position, but not by Smith. The 6-1, 195-pound righty from Huffman, Tex., who will enter his senior year at Lamar University in Texas, loves PFPs. That’s baseball shorthand for pitchers fielding practice.

“That’s my favorite stuff,” he said of fielding. “It’s something that’s … overlooked and it’s something that I like to add to my arsenal. I feel like I can separate myself a little more, being able to field my position.”

Smith surely did that, with four putouts in the game. Two in particular stood out.

After Ethan Hajdukovic (2-for-3, double) lined a sharp one-out single in the fourth, David Hogarth struck a grounder that first baseman Brendan Bean fielded. Smith alertly and quickly scooted over to cover first for the throw and the out on a bang-bang play in which he was knocked on his backside by Hogarth.

“It was tough,” Smith said. “The first baseman came up. I couldn’t go towards the line because he was closer to the line. I had to run around him. The runner didn’t even step on the bag. He actually stepped on my [left] foot, so that’s why the umpire called him out and I turned into a speed bump.”

After taking one practice pitch, Smith went back to work. He made another impressive defensive play in the sixth, covering second base and taking a throw from second baseman Tyrese Clayborne from shallow centerfield before tagging out John Tuccillo, trying to stretch a single into a double.

Smith also picked off Nick Cantone after Cantone slugged a first-pitch single to open up the game.

“It’s the small things that matter,” said Smith, who as a fielder this season has six putouts, five assists and one error for a .917 fielding percentage.

Ospreys pitching coach Austin Guzzo wouldn’t consider those things small, though. “He’s such a competitor,” Guzzo said. “He’s always going to be there and he’s always aware of what’s going on. A lot of guys can learn from how he takes the mound.”

On the pitching end of things, the only run Smith (1-2, 2.95 ERA) allowed came on a sixth-inning homer by Curtis Robison, his fifth of the season. Through six innings, Smith gave up six hits and one walk with four strikeouts before Alex Pansini and David Wylie handled a scoreless inning each.

“I didn’t have all my best stuff,” Smith said of his 94-pitch effort. “I knew my splitter wasn’t on. Luckily, my slider felt great coming out of the hand.”

The Ospreys (7-10-2) registered all three of their runs in the third. Matt Almonte’s leadoff walk and a double clocked by Connor Stanton set up a single Tyler White (2-for-3) lashed for the first run. Clayborne, who raised his batting average to .347 with a 3-for-4 night, then ripped an RBI single through the middle and Joe Mercadante tripled in Clayborne.

Mercadante didn’t remain in the game much longer after that, though. Shortly after, he charged for home plate, trying to score on a wild pitch, but was called out. He was then ejected after saying something the umpire didn’t like.

The play of the game, though, came in the sixth, with ominous thunder grumbling in the distance. It was an inning that had started promisingly for the Ospreys. J.C. Santini drew a leadoff walk and Ben Terwilliger clubbed a double. With two runners in scoring position and none out, the Ospreys came away empty-handed. Tyler Shedler-McAvoy hit a fly ball to leftfield that Tristan Welch caught and fired home to the catcher, Tuccillo, to nab Santini trying to score. Then throws to shortstop Tyler Becker and second baseman Ben Osborne caught Terwilliger in a rundown, completing a triple play.

It was a night to appreciate good fielding.

Smith, meanwhile, is appreciating the opportunity to be a starting pitcher, something he hadn’t done since he was in high school.

“I’ve always been a reliever out of the pen,” he said. “I started throughout all of high school, so I’m finding my groove again and I’m trying to figure it out.”

His glove work is helping.

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Photo caption: North Fork pitcher Austin Smith had four putouts, including two that were particularly impressive, to help the Ospreys to a 3-1 victory over Westhampton. (Credit: Garret Meade)