‘Fearless’ Connor Smith emerges as North Allegheny’s ace

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Saturday, May 7, 2022 | 11:01 AM


Connor Smith likes to experiment with his pitch grips, so when his favorite MLB pitcher shared a splitter setup on a podcast, the North Allegheny right-hander had to give it a try.

Smith already throws a splitter, but he wanted one that could fool batters like Kevin Gausman’s does.

“It’s really weird,” Smith said of the grip. “My middle finger is on the two-seam, but my (index) finger is out here (on the side of the baseball), almost like a circle change.”

Smith tried it at practice in early April.

“I threw it a couple of times on flat ground and hit my throwing partner in the kneecap because he didn’t expect it to move that much. I thought, ‘All right, I’ve got to throw this,’” Smith said.

North Allegheny coach Andrew Heck credits Smith’s “fearless” approach to pitching for his emergence this spring as the top starter for a Tigers team that tied for first in Section 1-6A. Heck started Smith against every section opponent, and the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder allowed one run in 271/3 innings with 39 strikeouts and eight walks in those outings. That equates to a 0.26 ERA for seven-inning games.

Heck said he lets Smith be himself — from the way he tinkers with his pitches to his methodical warmup routine before starts — because he’s proven it works.

“He’s always coming up with something new,” Heck said. “It’s a craft of his. He has a fastball, curveball and a pretty good splitter — those are his main pitches. But don’t get me wrong, he’ll mix in something new. He’s always working.”

Smith, a Cal (Pa.) recruit, has a fastball that sits around 87 mph. He admits he likes to tinker and said he could throw six or seven different pitches, though he admits they’re not all sharp.

“I could throw a sinker and cutter and changeup, but it wouldn’t be good,” he said, laughing.

Nonetheless, batters have been stumped by the pitches he does throw regularly. Smith threw five scoreless innings against both Seneca Valley and Allderdice. He went six scoreless against both Butler and Pine-Richland.

Only Central Catholic notched a run against him in section play.

“He’s gone out there and he’s been fearless,” Heck said. “We’ve talked about that with our hitters. Let’s talk to Connor. What fuels him? What motivates him?”

The Tigers have leaned on their pitching staff more than expected this spring. NA’s star shortstop Cole Young is batting better than .400, but the Tigers overall haven’t scored an abundance of runs.

Smith went 2-0 in his five section starts. However, in the three starts where he didn’t record a win, NA lost 1-0 to Seneca Valley, 2-1 to Central Catholic and 1-0 Pine-Richland.

“We haven’t swung the bats the way that we’ve wanted or the way we know that we can,” Heck said. “There’s still more there. … But the one thing that’s been talked about is what Connor Smith has done for us on the pitcher’s mound.”

Smith pitched only nine innings in total last season when North Allegheny won the WPIAL title and finished as the state runner-up behind a collection of senior arms. Smith made five appearances but showed potential with 19 strikeouts.

This spring, he struck out 11 batters in a win over Allderdice and 13 against Butler.

“He’s not going to do anything crazy or overpowering,” Heck said, “but he pitches off his fastball, he throws strikes, he throws multiple pitches for strikes and he’s fearless.”

Smith credits a pregame routine that begins a couple of hours before first pitch.

He uses a foam roller on lower-body muscles, turns to a lacrosse ball for releasing upper-body tension and then completes a full stretching routine for hips, shoulders and ankles. He plans to study exercise science at Cal (Pa.), so this body awareness fits perfectly.

He’ll also spend time visualizing his start, then gets to work in the bullpen with tension bands and weighted balls.

“I get laughed at a lot for some of the stuff I do out there,” Smith said.

His warm-up routine is different from his teammates, but Heck has come to accept it. No, the players can’t just do whatever they want, Heck said, but Smith’s dedication makes him unique.

“I’ll put it this way,” Heck said. “If they follow their routine like Connor Smith follows his, I’m fine with it. He’s a next-level type of thinker.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at charlan@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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