PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Dominic Smith honed his defensive skills as a youngster, creating games for himself in his backyard. Now, the New York Mets are finally starting to see the all-around game that made the first baseman a top draft pick out of high school.
At his childhood home in Los Angeles, Smith would spend hours practicing by himself by throwing a ball in his barren backyard, firing it repeatedly at a staircase to create an unpredictable grounder or flyball.
"We had a staircase in the backyard that probably had 15 stairs, pretty high," the left-handed Smith recalled. "I'd throw it off the stairs and try to hit them at different angles because that's how you get different hops.
"Might go straight up, might be a line drive, a short hop or something just weird. It was a dirt field with rocks, so you'd get bad hops. I'd throw a groundball, then throw it higher so I'd get a better hop like I'm turning a double play."
Being outside and playing in the yard made his parents happy, Smith said, but the hours spent tossing a ball at the staircase also sharpened his defensive play, his calling card as a prep star in Los Angeles.
Smith, 23, was the 11th overall pick in the 2013 draft, and through it all - from weight issues to low power numbers in the minors to being tardy in spring camp to battling sleep apnea - he appears to have overcome it all and is showcasing the skill set the Mets have been sorely awaiting.
Through 15 spring games, Smith is batting .359 (14-for-39) and is in a tight battle with righty-hitting Pete Alonso for playing time at first base. Alonso, whose big league career could be delayed two weeks in a player-control issue, is hitting everything thrown at him and has a team-leading four homers.
But, Smith has a different feeling about himself this spring and it has shown on the field.
"I'm just more at ease and just happy," Smith said. "I finally feel like I'm playing like I'm capable of playing, and I still feel I can play better. This is the type of stuff I did in the minor leagues."
Mets manager Mickey Callaway is just happy to see Smith at 100 percent.
"He gets to play," Callaway said. "We didn't really get to see him in spring last year. One game, he pulls the quad, and he's out the rest of the spring."
The Mets' performance staff noticed Smith didn't appear to be well-rested and ready to play, so they started treating Smith's sleep apnea, a disorder that interrupts breathing patterns during sleep.
Smith now uses a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device when he climbs into bed. No longer groggy, Smith is producing.
"He comes to the park rested and feeling good. He has more energy. His eyes are actually open because he's not tired," Callaway said.
Now it's not just how Smith works around the first base bag because Smith has been swinging the bat with the kind of prowess that he showed coming up through New York's farm system, where he had torrid seasons at High A St. Lucie, Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Las Vegas.
Well-rested, wide-eyed and alert, Smith has put last season's bad camp behind him and is enjoying another opportunity.
"It's pretty cool to see in this short sample some rewards," said Smith, whose 14 spring-training hits are tied for third on the Mets.
NOTES: 2B Robinson Cano continued his hot spring in two games over the weekend, going 5 for 5 with a two doubles to boost his spring average to .486. ... After going 0 for 7 to start the Grapefruit League, utilityman Jeff McNeil has bumped his average to .324. ... The Mets expect to carry a seven-man bullpen to Washington for the opener on March 28. Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Justin Wilson, Edwin Diaz, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman are locks, with LHP Luis Avilan, a minor-league invite, a strong candidate for one of the two open spots. Avilan, 29, had shoulder soreness last season, but his changeup has been the talk of camp. ... Alonso and Michael Conforto hit home runs against the Washington Nationals in Palm Beach. Alonso, batting .347 this spring, slugged his fourth homer, and Conforto hit his third, and second in two days. ... RHPs Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard will square off in a morning game on a back field Monday. ... LHP Hector Santiago allowed six runs and seven hits and recorded just two outs in the bottom of the first inning against Washington, ballooning his ERA to 9.45.
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