No matter what else happened in his career, Pavin Smith secured his Virginia legacy in the final game of his freshman year.
That game happened to be the winner-takes-the-title third game of the 2015 CWS Finals against Vanderbilt. The Commodores had beaten the favored Cavs for the championship the year before, and this time around Virginia was a heavy underdog. But after squeaking into the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed, UVa. simply refused to lose. A core of battle-tested warriors in the upper classes carried plenty of the load, but a couple precocious freshmen had a very big role to play, too.
One of them was Adam Haseley, the two-way talent who helped keep UVa. alive with five scoreless innings in the middle game of the Finals, then reached base safely in all four at-bats of the rubber game. The other was Smith, who turned around that last game with a game-tying two-run homer in the fourth, then put Virginia ahead for good with an RBI single an inning later.
It was an incredible pinnacle at the end of freshman All-America campaigns for Smith and Haseley, but it was just the beginning of their impact in Charlottesville. They have gone on to become two of the most accomplished and celebrated players in program history. Both players have managed to get even better each year, and now both are poised to be drafted in the top half of the first round.
They've been so good for so long, and they go about their business with such quiet professionalism that it's easy to take Smith and Haseley for granted. But that would be a mistake.
"(Smith) obviously hit the big home run there in Omaha in his freshman year that helped him win Game Three against Vanderbilt. Now it's like, 'All right, it's come to be expected,'" Virginia coach Brian O'Connor said. "Pavin's worked really, really hard to continue to progress in his game. He's got great balance in his life, he's a great kid, faith is really important to him. He's playing the game with a smile on his face. There's been times where maybe he's scuffled for a couple games, and you say to him, 'Everything all right?' He's got a smile, and it's, 'Hey coach, I'm great!' There's never been any panic about him."
That kind of even keel is obviously critical to maintain the kind of consistent performance Smith has turned in for three years. He hit .307/.373/.467 with seven homers and 44 RBIs as a freshman, then improved to .329/.410/.513 with eight homers and 57 RBIs as a sophomore, in eight fewer games.
Smith and Haseley are both having special seasons, worthy of legitimate Golden Spikes Award consideration, but Smith is doing something as a junior that is nearly unheard of for a power hitter. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound first baseman is batting .355/.433/.585 - with more home runs (10) than strikeouts (seven). He has four times as many walks (28) as he has punchouts.
"He gets his money's worth, and he he still does with two strikes," O'Connor said. "His hand-eye coordination, his contact rate, I don't know what the right words to use, it's just really, really impressive. You see some of these guys swing and miss so much that are great prospects, but it's pretty rare to see him swing and miss. The quality of contact rate is really good.
"I think you ask a lot of people about hitters, everybody says, 'Jeez there's no hitters in the draft, hitting's down.' At a point in time where a lot of people are complaining about offense, this guy is really, really special. He's just got a knack to be able to hit."
Scouts agree with that assessment, of course. Smith has always hit. He hit in high school in Jupiter, Fla., and he hit the very first time UVa. recruiting coordinator Kevin McMullan ever went to see him, after O'Connor got a tip about him from a close friend down in Florida. That first time McMullan set eyes on him, he hit the ball out of the park.
Smith was drafted in the 32nd round by the Rockies but could have gone a lot higher if not for his strong commitment to Virginia. Education was important to him and his family, so he was determined to head to college.
He also hit with a wood bat in summer ball. After he batted .331 with four homers and nine doubles in 163 at-bats for Harwich last summer (counting the playoffs), Smith firmly established himself in the eyes of scouts as one of the best bats in the 2017 draft.
"He's the best pure college hitter in this draft, and his power is a little bit undervalued. I think he's a pure hitter who happens to have power," one AL crosschecker said. "He's always had power, but now he's getting to it with frequency, and he's a good first baseman."
That's the part of Smith's game that can get overlooked: his defense. He has spent some time in left field during his UVa. career, and O'Connor insists he has the athleticism to play there in pro ball or continue to be a standout first baseman.
"The kid takes great routes to the ball in the outfield. He moves around well," O'Connor said. "His defense at first base, some people might want to be critical of it, but all you have to do is go back and watch highlights of this guy … It's very, very rare to see somebody throw the ball in the dirt and him not clean pick it. He's not just a guy who squares it up and keeps it in front of him. He's very, very good with his glove. I think that's something that maybe not a whole lot of people care about for a first baseman, they're just consumed with the power numbers."
Of course, the power numbers are there too. The fact that his power numbers have continued to grow with each passing season is a testament to his physical maturity. The fact that his strikeout numbers have continued to shrink is nothing short of a marvel.
The Cavaliers know how lucky they've been to have Smith and Haseley anchoring their roster for the last three years. And even though their place in history was secure two years ago after they played such a huge part in delivering Virginia its first national title, they didn't rest on their laurels. They're not wired that way, which is a very good thing for the Cavs.
"Certainly we've been fortunate to have a lot of really good players. Both of these guys, as far as performers and people, they're on a very, very short list," O'Connor said. "It's rare to have guys make such an immediate impact like these two guys did their freshman year. And the most impressive thing to me is they've just continued to get better and better. Some guys come in and plateau, and that's who they are. These guys have continued their development, because they have dreams and ambitions beyond here. They've played a huge part in winning a national championship and keeping it a high level. What these two guys are doing back to back 3 and 4 in the lineup, are there many other 3-4 combinations doing that? I'm sure there are, but not very many. these guys are pretty special.
"Their humility is very impressive. They lead by example in their own ways. I think this is part of the reason they're having so much success in their draft-eligible year, something that players don't always handle well - they've handled it great, because they're two centered, humble men."