180329_tony_UGAbaseball_vs_TexasA&M_0020.jpg

University of Georgia pitcher Kevin Smith (15) throws the ball in the air between pitches during a game between The University of Georgia and Texas A&M University at Foley Field in Athens, Georgia on Thursday, March 29, 2018. (Photo/Tony Walsh)

In the top of the third inning of a 0-0 game, Georgia pitcher Kevin Smith toed the rubber to start his relief appearance. It turned out to be the best of his career.

“It felt good,” Smith said with a smile while signing autographs for some young fans.

The 6-foot-5 left-hander from Dunwoody, Georgia, tossed 4 1/3 innings of relief in Georgia’s 4-0 victory Tuesday night over Georgia Tech. Smith picked up the win to improve to 4-1 on the year. Smith effortlessly commanded his pitches and racked up a career-high nine strikeouts in his appearance.

“The fastball in was working really well,” Smith said. “The slider today had a little more bite than usual. It felt really good today.”

Smith was the opening-day starter for the Bulldogs, but through his first three starts he posted a 1-1 record with a 7.14 ERA. So, after a loss at the College of Charleston earlier this season, Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin decided to move Smith to the bullpen.

“That was a tough conversation, and he wasn’t very happy about it,” Stricklin said. “He’s a competitor, he wanted to be in the rotation, but by the next day 24 hours went by and he embraced the role.”

Not long after that conversation, Smith appeared in relief against the Citadel and that was the turning point of the season.

“Our bullpen got transformed in that Citadel game 17 games ago and Kevin Smith is a huge reason why,” Stricklin said. “He accepted that role and he’s been huge for us during this stretch.”

Tonight, Smith struck out 50 percent of the batters he faced and got a large ovation when he exited the game from the sellout crowd of 3,730 at Foley Field.

Smith’s approach is to do everything he can to back up the starting pitcher whenever the call comes and it’s his turn to pitch.

“Today we had that one-run lead, and I tried to keep that one-run lead as long as I could,” he said.

His outing was so sharp that the Georgia coaching staff admitted they may have gotten greedy and kept him on the mound a batter too long.

On the planned staff night for the Georgia pitchers, the idea was to have starter Tony Locey throw two innings then for Smith to toss the next three. But, when the sixth inning rolled around, Smith was slated to go up against a majority of left-handed hitters.

Heading into that inning, pitching coach Sean Kenny asked Stricklin what he wanted to do.

Stricklin’s response was simple, “I want to win the game,” he said.

So, Smith stayed in and fanned two of the batters he faced during his perfect frame.

Now, Smith said he's settled into his role as a key reliever and is a big part of why Georgia sits at 22-7 on the year.

“We just try to have fun out there and stay loose,” Smith said. “We’re always out there to win and beat the guys next to us.”