Armani Smith feels at home again, and not just because his NCAA playoff debut will come this weekend near his hometown of Martinez.
His baseball journey has gone full circle with the 11 home runs and .325 average he’s batted in the quest to halt two losing seasons for the UCSB baseball team.
“Personally, my whole life I’ve won … high school, travel ball,” said Smith, who was a Louisville Slugger All-American for De La Salle High School in 2016. “So those last two years were tough … Real tough.”
This third season has been the charm for the junior right fielder. He’s led the Gauchos (45-9) to their first Big West Conference championship since 1986 and the No. 2 seed in this weekend’s NCAA Regional at Stanford. They will face third-seeded Fresno State in their tournament opener on Friday at 7 p.m.
“It was always a dream of mine to go to a regional, to go to the postseason,” said Smith, who came in the first wave of recruits after UCSB’s College World Series season of 2016. “The past two years didn’t pan out, but thankfully it’s happened for us now.”
Smith’s batting average slumped under the weight of the Gauchos’ failures — from .285 his freshman year to .224 last season.
“Last year, he almost kind of freaked out, it felt like,” coach Andrew Checketts said. “He struggled and then he panicked … and swung at everything.”
It had UCSB’s eighth-year coach even question Smith’s eyesight.
“We had his eyes tested — there’s a program that does that — but he was off the charts,” he said. “He had the best pitch recognition on the team in the testing.
“A lot of it really felt like it was emotional. A lot of it was just trusting himself and being able to trust his swing, having a real plan and being committed to it.”
Smith’s emotions did emerge on Sunday when he scored during the third inning of the Gauchos’ championship-clinching win over Cal Poly.
Checketts took Smith’s clutch 2-for-4 hitting to heart, as well — especially after they had lost the previous two games of the series.
“It was hard to watch him fail the previous year and a half, based on the tools he has, and on what a great kid he is,” he said. “When the kids do everything you ask of them and they care about the team … I mean, Armani desperately wants to win, and sometimes to a fault because he puts so much pressure on himself.
“You could see that during the Cal Poly weekend where he really wanted to carry the team and it wasn’t going great.”
Smith’s potential greatness has been on display during every batting practice, Checketts said.
“He’s hitting balls over the trees in centerfield, which just doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “I’m going to send him a bill at the end of the year for the baseballs he’s lost.
“We have a lot of balls that have only been hit once, and he’s been a big part of that.”
Of Smith’s 68 hits, 35 have gone for extra bases. His 16 doubles lead the team and his eight triples rank fifth in the nation. He’s just one triple away from tying the school record set by Brett Vertigan in 2012. His slugging percentage of .636 ranks 51st in the nation.
“Our motto on offense is see the ball up, hit the ball up,” he said.
Smith’s spirits arose with this year’s arrival of new associate head coach Donegal Fergus and assistant Matt Fonteno. Checketts credits the “new mood” they brought for raising the team’s batting average to just under .300 for this season.
“The whole vibe and mental approach to the game changed,” Smith explained. “We kind of got here just by being positive and staying on the right stuff, and that’s come with the coaches reassuring us in our abilities and talents.
“It’s a great amount of support that’s not really even coach-to-player, but more human-to-human.”
Smith played shortstop at De La Salle High, and Checketts gave him a few looks at both first and second bases before making him his every-day right fielder.
“Our entire outfield is made up of high school infielders,” he said. “But Armani looks like a big-league right fielder. He has the body (6-foot-4 and 215 pounds) and he looks good getting off the bus.”
Smith has formed a strong bond with senior left fielder Tevin Mitchell and junior centerfielder Tommy Jew.
“We take pride in our outfield — we believe we’re the best outfield in the country,” Smith said. “That’s how we go about our business, trying to be the best … And it’s not just us three, but all the outfielders who make up our own little family.”
He’s expecting a lot more family to show up for his weekend’s regional at Stanford. His mother, Amber Garcia, still lives in Martinez.
“We talk every day,” Smith said. “I’m really thankful for her because she gets me through a lot.
“I struggled last year, but my mom is huge on being positive. She believes that if you put good energy into the universe, it will come back to you somehow.”
It’s only the baseballs that don’t come back for Armani Smith.