Joe Davidson

El Dorado High School slugger Matt Smith leads nation with 14 home runs

El Dorado High School baseball player Matt Smith at practice, Monday May 11, 2015.
El Dorado High School baseball player Matt Smith at practice, Monday May 11, 2015. Special to The Bee

Matt Smith recalls his first home run with detail and delight.

He was 10 years old with legs not much wider than the barrel of the bat. But the swing was true, and the ball flew.

Rotary Park in Placerville was where it happened, the El Dorado High School senior slugger said recently. “I hit it over the center-field scoreboard. I was ecstatic. I was medium-size then, and I’d never hit a ball that hard or that far.”

Smith is more plus-size now at 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, and he recounts his latest blast with equal pride. This one, with larger stakes, was a tape-measure blast that is still being talked about by El Dorado coaches and players.

“That one,” Smith said simply, “really went a long way.”

Last week at Galt Community Park, El Dorado played Liberty Ranch with the Sierra Valley Conference championship on the line. In the sixth inning with the score 1-1, the Sacramento State-bound Smith unleashed his inner Reggie Jackson. He crushed a head-turning solo homer that, according to witnesses, bounced way beyond the left-center-field fence. That was Smith’s 14th home run this spring – good for the national lead, according to MaxPreps.com – and his biggest drive to date.

“It just went, and it went, in a regulation park, a full-sized field,” El Dorado coach Rusty McDonald said. “It landed on the road way out there. I mean, wow.”

Nick Bonniksen pitched that 2-1 triumph for the Cougars of Placerville, improving to 8-1. The ace said he sensed Smith was about to make something majestic happen.

“I’m sitting in the dugout, and here comes Matt, and I say, ‘He’s going to hit a homer right here,’” Bonniksen said. “We just went ballistic. That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s insane what he does. He hits no-doubt shots, like that Liberty Ranch one, a ‘see-you-later ball.’”

A home run in baseball is what a dunk is in basketball: emphatic and swift in its sudden burst of power. Smith can relate in both sports.

A Bee All-Metro honorable mention selection in basketball, Smith led the Cougars in scoring, sometimes finishing above the rim. As much as he appreciates that sport, Smith especially enjoys sizing up a pitch.

Entering the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs this week, Smith is hitting .598 with 55 hits and a state-leading 57 RBIs, also third-best nationally, according to MaxPreps. He has 15 doubles and a hard-to-fathom 1.217 slugging percentage.

To put the home run and RBI totals in better perspective, consider there are 14,988 teams that play high school baseball in this country. On a local scale, the section record holders for home runs in a season, according to Cal-Hi Sports and Bee research, is shared by Lars Anderson of Jesuit in 2006 and Max Stassi of Yuba City in 2008. Both clubbed 15, and both are in the minor leagues, Anderson with Double-A Tulsa (Dodgers) and Stassi with Triple-A Fresno (Astros).

While Anderson and Stassi unquestionably faced stronger teams from larger leagues, home runs are to be admired, no matter who swats them.

“I just know it’s a great feeling,” said Smith, who is more humble than boastful. “It’s a feeling of knowing you got a good swing into the ball, and got all of it, and it’s a great feeling of success right to your stomach.”

Smith credits his power surge – he hit just two home runs last year – to increased strength and better at-plate awareness. He has struck out just four times.

It also helps that El Dorado’s short fences make for quite a launching pad; 10 of Smith’s homers have come at home.

McDonald offers a counterargument.

“First of all, you don’t see many home runs in high school, especially with the change of bats a few years ago, so that makes it more astonishing,” McDonald said. “Yes, we have a small yard, so I won’t dispute that, but we’ve added a 22-foot-high fence, and our pitching staff has allowed one home run at home all season. So why isn’t anyone else hitting homers here?”

McDonald understands baseball. A first-round January-phase pick by the Dodgers in 1978, he pitched seven minor-league seasons.

“(Smith’s) so good now, and he’s only going to get better,” McDonald said.

Former Cordova coach Guy Anderson vouched for Smith’s talent, saying, “Oh, he’s a great one, the best player I’ve seen this year anywhere. Great power, great hands, and he hits some real shots that would go out of any park.”

Smith said he has “had a blast” this season, highlighted by the Cougars’ 22-5 record. Other offensive leaders for El Dorado are Owen Mackendrick (.422, 26 RBIs), Aaron Farney (.367, 21 RBIs) and Adam Washabaugh (.380, 21 RBIs).

Smith’s father, Ken, an engineer, is an El Dorado assistant coach.

“We’ve had a special bonding with baseball, and I get to see him where I love to be, playing ball,” Smith said. “He stays in the back of the dugout after I hit home runs, but he’s always there with a huge grin, waiting for me, saying, ‘Man, you got all of that one.’ It’s a great moment to get high-fives from your teammates and then from your dad.”

And to hear from his mother, RaeEllen. She celebrates each home run with a wailing cheer.

“It’s funny,” Smith said. “One of my teammates asked, ‘Is that a horn?’ I say, ‘Nah, it’s just my mom!’”

As a 4.0 student, Smith heats up in class, too. This is especially true in the culinary course he and Bonniksen savor so much.

“I can cook almost anything from a rib-eye steak to pasta,” Smith said. “It’s embedded into me that cooking is fun.”

Smith said he will study criminal justice at Sac State. He wants to enlist in the Navy after graduation, if the major leagues don’t call first.

“I want to get into law enforcement, one of the three-letter bureaus like the FBI or CIA,” Smith said.

For now, he’s big on the three-letter craft of HRs.

By the numbers

Key statistics for El Dorado High School’s Matt Smith this season

  • 14: Home runs, tops in the country and one shy of the Sac-Joaquin Section record
  • 57: RBIs, tops in the state and third nationally
  • .598: Batting average
  • 1.217: Slugging percentage
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