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March 22, 2011

Smart assumes closer's role in win

TUSCALOOSA | Jonathan Smart isn't the closer Major League Baseball scouts drool over.

He doesn't tower over opposing batters from the mound. He can't rear back and blow it by hitters either. He won't even throw a menacing scowl just for dramatic effect.

But whatever Smart is doing, it's working, coming on in the eighth inning Tuesday for the University of Alabama and securing the win over UAB, 6-3.

Although he may not be imposing, standing just at six feet tall and weighing a slight 170 lbs., Smart has taken over the closer's role for the Crimson Tide. He may look more like a middle reliever, relying on mainly off-speed pitches to counteract his fastball that doesn't stray far from the mid-80s on the radar gun, but for now Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard has found his closer.

In four chances, he's recorded four saves. Never mind it's his first four saves of his career. When it comes to pressure situations in relief, the Tuscaloosa native has come through in the clutch.

The lanky left-hander came in Tuesday with the bases loaded in the eighth inning with two outs and the game on the line. Smart got UAB's second-place hitter to line out and end the inning.

Smart then finished off UAB in the ninth, sending the Blazers home three up, three down.

Gaspard said that with his string of four consecutive saves, Smart has earned the spot at the end of the game.

"He's certainly found a pretty good role for him and us right now," Gaspard said. "He's turned into every day Eddie Guardado. We're going to roll with the hot hand right now.

"He's got really good nerves. The game doesn't bother him, especially when it gets late."

Smart said he never thought he'd be closing for Alabama, instead seeing himself as a long-relief pitcher.

"The typical closer is a guy who throws hard in the mid to low 90s," Smart said. "That's just not who I am."

While he doesn't have the power pitchers repertoire, Smart said coming through in pressure situations and getting outs is what it all comes down to.

"You can't give up a hit. You've got to get him out," Smart said. "You have to have a different mentality about you when you go out there. Besides that, I try to do the same thing and throw strikes and get ahead in the count."

Alabama's starter against UAB, Charley Sullivan threw five innings before handing the ball off to the bullpen and watching Smart close the door. He said, of late, Smart has been a new man, growing in confidence.

"You don't see many 83-84 mph closers," Sullivan said. "He's done a great job this year. (Nathan) Kennedy was kind of the closer ... now we have two of them. That's a plus."

Austen Smith, who went 3-4 with two RBIs against UAB, said Smart's play in the closer's role has been a surprise.

"He's a unique closer. When you think of a closer, he's throwing 98 mph and a big guy," Smith said. "Smart's a tricky pitcher. He'll work his pitches really well, throws strikes and gets swings and misses a lot. ... No one seems to square the ball up really good on Smart."

Shaw to get MRI tomorrow

Alabama freshman relief pitcher Jay Shaw was pulled in the eighth inning with elbow problems. Gaspard said Shaw will have an MRI tomorrow and "more than likely" go to Birmingham on Thursday to see specialist Dr. James Andrews.

"You hope for the best in the next 48 hours," Gaspard said. "We're going to be very cautious right now"

A freshman from Pinson, Shaw gave up one earned run in two innings against UAB.

You can reach Alex Scarborough at alex.scarborough@tuscaloosanews.com or 205-722-0193.




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