CHAMPAIGN — A normal Major League Baseball draft in 2020 likely would have resulted in Luke Smith getting selected.
Of course, nothing has felt normal about the past three months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, June saw Smith receive a flurry of phone calls from various MLB teams curious about his future despite the 2020 draft reduced from 40 rounds down to five. And despite the fact Smith was not among the 160 players selected in this year’s draft, leaving the Centennial graduate and Champaign native contemplating what to do about his baseball future: sign as a free agent and start his pro career or head back to Louisville for one final season.
Smith chose the latter, announcing on Wednesday he will take advantage of an extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to all spring sport athletes whose 2020 seasons were canceled abruptly because of the pandemic and pitch for the Cardinals during the 2021 season.
“I felt like going into pro ball now, I would live with regret of not going back and playing out my senior year and seeing what would happen next year,” Smith told The News-Gazette on Wednesday afternoon. “After the draft didn’t work out like I was hoping it would, I had some tough decisions to make.”
Smith said he received a few phone calls from MLB teams during the two days of the draft on June 10-11, wondering what it would take to sign Smith and the dollar amount he was seeking when it came for a signing bonus. The phone calls increased exponentially on June 14, the first day free agency could start, with teams inquiring about signing undrafted players to deals.
“That Sunday, I was up all morning talking to different teams,” Smith said. “It was a lot of teams seeing where my interest was, along with them telling me what they had to offer and what their organization was like. It was definitely cool to hear the interest that they had, but at the end of the day, I was wondering where the interest was on draft night.”
Smith has seen his stock rise since he graduated from Centennial in 2016. He shined during his senior season with the Chargers, picking up nine wins and posting a 1.84 earned run average for a Class 3A sectional finalist en route to News-Gazette All-Area First Team honors.
Yet, he walked on at Parkland with few colleges expressing interest in the lanky right-hander. In two years with the Cobras, however, the 6-foot-3, 175-pound Smith compiled an 18-2 record and 161 strikeouts during two seasons, helping Parkland to an NJCAA Division II national runner-up finish in 2018 after he committed to Louisville in October 2017.
Winning games continued during his first two seasons at Louisville, where he’s sported a 9-1 record with a 4.03 ERA and turned into a reliable weekend starter with the Cardinals. Next year, those expectations and scrutiny will likely increase given Louisville’s two other weekend starters from the abbreviated 2020 season — Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller — both went in the first round of this year’s draft.
“There’s no way to replace those two, both as players and teammates,” Smith said. “There’s a rich history of Friday night starters at Louisville. I’ve got a lot of work to do, and I don’t expect it to be given to me, but I want the ball and I want to set the tone for the weekend.”
Pitching on the biggest possible stage in college baseball in also left a mark on Smith. He started Louisville’s final game at the 2019 College World Series, lasting 8 1/3 innings. Of course, he also received national notoriety that June night for saying a few expletives directed at a Vanderbilt hitter during the Cardinals’ 3-2 loss. The sequence went viral on social media, and Smith apologized after the game, a stance he has publicly repeated numerous times since then.
So getting the chance to experience the atmosphere and environment at T.D. Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., with a national title on the line is something Smith wants to do again.
“That’s what it’s all about. That’s the reason I’m coming back,” Smith said. “We feel like it’s national championship or bust at Louisville. We’re shooting for the stars next year.”
Which is why he’s still pushing himself. Smith plans on playing in a league near Indianapolis later this summer. Then, it’s back to Louisville for one last season.
But his hometown still matters to him. Much like those Centennial-Champaign Central games he used to play in against Joe Aeilts, Alec Barger, Tanner Gordon and Jake Snider. Those four Central graduates are all in the minor leagues, along with one of Smith’s former teammates with the Chargers, Jeff Lindgren.
“I’ve always believed in myself,” Smith said. “At Centennial, we had that pitching staff with Lindgren, Anthony Martin and myself. We all believed in our abilities. It’s cool now looking back to the Central-Centennial games we played with all the talent on those teams. I’m glad that Champaign is finally starting to get recognized as a baseball hub.”