By Jordan Hall
Brian Wilson has a beard so long and thick that birds could nest in it, Jose Valverde screams and hops as if his pants are on fire and big-bellied Heath Bell does his best Usain Bolt impression by sprinting to the mound.
These are all quirks of Major League Baseball closers, a vital position that often requires wackiness and peculiarity.
But when it comes to Rider closer Tyler Smith, there’s nothing more than a simple kid who likes to pitch. Besides some writing in his hat, the junior represents your ordinary baseball player, but there is one thing he has in common with his nutty counterparts: he sure can save a ballgame.
As a mid-major recruit, hailing from a mid-major program, Smith has become one of the nation’s premier ninth inning stoppers. It is known that at Rider, when the hard-throwing lefty enters a game, it’s lights out.
“Get your sleeping bags and pillows out,” senior Brandon Cotten said.
That’s all Cotten and his teammates know when Smith makes his way to the hill — goodnight.
“You know when he comes in, the game’s over,” Pitching Coach Jaime Steward said. “You know what he’s going to give you and you know that’s going to be good enough 99 times out of 100.”
Smith primarily pitches when Rider has a lead of three runs or less, and with that, he has mastered the craft of closing out baseball games and sending Rider into the win column.
In fact, the southpaw has done it so well that the country has taken notice. After a dominant sophomore season in which Smith saved a Rider-record 15 games, 10th best in Division I, he was named a 2012 Preseason Second Team All-American by the College Baseball Writers Association. Listed alongside him were relief pitchers from the likes of Texas, Florida and many other high-profile programs.
“It’s an honor just to be named in that echelon with those guys,” Smith said. “It’s a challenge in that I’d like to be on that list at the end of the season. It’s great to be named to it in the beginning, but it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t get it done this year.”
And that’s what makes Smith successful late in games. The 6’2”, 220-pounder is the total package. Smith possesses the pitching skills to shut the door, but more importantly, he has the mental makeup of a stud closer.
When Smith takes his trot the mound, he’s zoned in.
“Get in there, pound the zone, throw hard and get them out,” Smith said. “You have to be almost narrow-minded in that it doesn’t matter what happens, I’m going to be better than they are this inning.”
Each outing, Smith uses the same scheme to save victories. First, the hurler gets ahead in the count by jamming his 85-89 miles per hour fastball in on the hands of the opposing batter. After he overpowers the hitter, he throws his devastating splitter to punch them out.
“My game is: work to get ahead with the fastball, establish that I can throw it inside and then have them swing over the splitter and chase it,” he said.
Smith’s arsenal consists of a four-seam fastball, a slider and, what most closers have, a go-to pitch. For Smith, it’s his nasty splitter.
“That’s my bread and butter,” he said.
Cotten knows when Smith works the count in his favor, he’s nearly unhittable.
“If he throws that first ball for a strike, he’s got the batter,” Cotten said. “Especially with his splitter — that’s his out pitch.”
Smith has the stuff and control to rack up strikeouts. Last season, the Westmont, N.J., native collected 41 strikeouts and only walked seven, but the protocol is to record the final outs as quickly as possible, no matter which way. In his career, Smith has done just that. In 2011, opponents hit for just a .190 average against him.
“He’s the definition of consistency,” Steward said. “He doesn’t care how he gets the outs. He just wants to get them and get out.”
And even better, he has an unflappable demeanor under pressure.
“He’s very calm and it doesn’t look like the game ever speeds up on him,” Steward said. “He looks like he’s in control at all times. Some places, I’ve seen guys and it’s a high wire act — the closer comes in and there are a lot of fingers crossed and hoping and praying. With Tyler, I know what I’m going to get out of him every time he comes in the game.”
When Smith came to Rider, the Broncs saw closer potential. The lefthander set a school record with most appearances as a rookie, appearing in 31 games and he even notched a save in the 2010 MAAC title game.
As a sophomore, Smith took over the closing duties and flourished. In his final 10 and 2/3 innings pitched of the season, he allowed only one earned run, and at season’s end, he was named the MAAC and New Jersey Closer of the Year.
In 2012 with sky-high expectations, Smith is doing whatever it takes to help Rider shake its early season struggles. Through a 7-16 overall start, Smith has saved three games while sporting a 1.59 earned run average. On May 24, he threw seven remarkable innings to win a game in 13 innings for the Broncs against Niagara.
“I like the pressure,” Smith said. “I love that kind of stuff. When you’re in the late innings, you need to be on point every time, and I like that.”
With dreams of playing at the professional ranks after college, Smith is working on whatever it takes to reach that goal.
And right now, Rider has something as sure as it gets when it comes to putting the final nail in the coffin.
“Tyler’s just got a will to win,” Steward said. “He’s not perfect, but he’s about as close to it as you can probably get on this level.”