WEST LAFAYETTE – The moment of reflection for Jackson Smeltz didn’t come after the San Diego Padres selected the smooth and powerful left-hander in the 10th round of last week’s MLB Draft.
It happened the day before the selection process as the ace of last year’s Purdue staff finished his workout at McCutcheon, a place where he was a standout and started his development to become one of the top pitchers in the Big Ten.
“I sat down, and I was smiling,” said Smeltz, who plans to sign with the Padres. “I knew I had done everything that I could up until to this point. There was no stone left unturned. I did exactly what I needed to do. I was just thankful.”
To understand Smeltz’s emotions, you need to understand how he arrived at this point.
Adversity has come in the form of a concussion in junior high playing football, after returning from a groin injury, but that allowed doctors to discover – and remove – a noncancerous tumor in his brain, the root of constant headaches.
The one-time Oklahoma State commitment pitched just three innings in his final three years at McCutcheon after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his left elbow.
And following the pandemic season in 2020, he underwent surgery for an injured hip labrum. Throw in an injured lat muscle, which shut down his 2022 season, and Smeltz has dealt with plenty.
“Without those trials, without those obstacles I had to overcome – injuries, the health problems – I see those as a gift from God,” he said. “I truly would not be in the position I am right now without those. I wouldn’t be the man I am without what God had me go through. He put me through those things for a reason.”
The reason was to come out on the other end in a better place with the opportunity Smeltz is grateful to receive with the Padres. The third-team All-Big Ten selection worked with former MLB pitcher, McCutcheon star and current Lafayette Jeff coach Clayton Richard to prepare himself for what’s ahead.
Richard, also a left-hander, mentored Smeltz in a lot of areas connected to baseball and not just on the field. He threw bullpen sessions in Richard’s workout facility to bring himself back to 100% after his last performance in April.
After the Padres made their selection, the first call he received was from former Purdue coach Mark Wasikowski, who is now at Oregon. Wasikowski recruited Smeltz to the Boilermakers.
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Smeltz talked to his parents and then called Richard.
“He took me under his wing at a young age and he’s really mentored me and probably the biggest influence – other than my dad – in my baseball career,” Smeltz said. “I was at their house every day working out with him. He called people on my behalf and I can’t say enough about him and his family.
“God put him in my life for a reason. I didn’t start crying until I started talking to him and that shows you how much his relationship means to me. I couldn’t get a word out based on how much he’s done for me.”
Richard understands the journey Smeltz is about to embark on after being selected in the eighth round in 2005 by the Chicago White Sox. He made his debut for the White Sox in 2008 and was eventually traded to the Padres the next season.
All of that experience has been helpful to Smeltz, who begins to navigate his way through professional baseball once he signs with the San Diego, which has a High-A affiliate in Fort Wayne.
Smeltz did put his name into the NCAA transfer portal to keep his options open if the draft didn’t work out in his favor.
“I love Purdue. I had a great four years. I graduated from Purdue. No ill-will toward Purdue whatsoever,” he said. “I had a great career at Purdue but if the draft didn’t go my way, there was a possibility I would’ve gone back to Purdue but I wanted to see what was out there and keep every option open.”
With 79 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings, Smeltz (12.40) eclipsed the minimum 30-inning strikeouts per nine innings team record that had stood since 1965. He was on pace to eclipse Purdue’s single-season record (95) for strikeouts.
He’s fully recovered from the injury that ended his season. He last pitched on April 22 against Belmont, striking out eight over seven innings. He started 10 games overall, posting a 2.83 ERA and a 6-1 record.
“The day before the Belmont series I felt really good,” Smeltz said. “I remember preparing for that game and I was just sitting there, thinking ‘I’m living the dream.’ I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had throwing a baseball. I was loving what I was doing. I was the Friday night starter for Purdue. I was having a blast.”
The fun ended as Smeltz never returned to the mound for the Boilermakers, who could’ve used his talents to move up the Big Ten standings.
“It was a tough thing to sit out the last part of the season, but I had to listen to the doctors and needed to come back 100 percent and I couldn’t rush it,” he said. “I was put on a throwing program and it did pay off. My arm hasn’t felt better. I’m 100 percent and throwing bullpens twice a week. I’ll be ready to pitch whenever I need to.”
Mike Carmin covers Purdue sports for the Journal & Courier and USA Today Network. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter and Instagram @carmin_jc