It’s been six years since Dodgers catcher Will Smith last played for the University of Louisville.
But in the Cardinals baseball program, he was part of a lineage of catching excellence that survives half a decade later.
Smith took the lessons he learned from some old senior backstop when he first arrived and passed it on to his successor, Zeke Pinkham.
Pinkham then became a mentor to Henry Davis, who was selected first overall in the Major League Baseball amateur draft last year.
Before Davis left, he kept the tradition alive, providing a more experienced lead to Dalton Rushing, the program’s next young catcher.
And on Sunday, on the first night of this year’s MLB draft, it all came full circle—for Louisville and the Dodgers.
With their first pick of the draft, the Dodgers selected Rushing in the second round, 40th overall.
The team did not have a first-round pick after last year’s competitive balance exceeded the tax limit.
Yet the Dodgers added another highly touted catcher to an organizational talent pool in which Smith excels at the major league level and top prospect Diego Cartaya dominates in the minor leagues’ high A.
“The Los Angeles Dodgers do a great job with the catchers,” Rushing said on a videoconference call from Louisville after being picked up. “Will Smith has clearly shown the ability that he has behind the plate. I can’t describe how excited I am to leave.”
Rushing was ranked the 50th-best prospect in the draft class by MLB.com, praising his left-arm power swing—he scored 23 home runs this season, the fourth-most in Louisville history and the nation’s this year. He scored the 16th most runs in the game – but is also facing questions about his future behind the plate.
During his first two seasons at Louisville, he served as Davis’s backup, dividing his time defensively between catcher and first base. This year, he started 63 games overall, but only 36 on catcher, again at first base and designated hitter.
However, the Dodgers are high on Rushing’s potential as a catcher.
“We really believe that catching up is going to be possible and that’s really going to be a path,” said Billy Gasparino, Dodgers’ vice president of amateur scouting. “I think most of the industry was skeptical … but it was a while ago in sporadic play what we think is a genius catcher.”
Louisville coach Dan McDonnell agreed, speaking on the phone Sunday night.
“He did a lot behind the plate to show his skills,” McDonnell said. “He hasn’t caught a ton in Louisville and got better, so [think about] how much better [he’ll get] When you put him back there for 100-something games. ,
Another benefit the school’s 16th year coach pointed out: “It’s a refreshing body. This is not a child who has been trampled in the last three years.”
In contrast, McDonnell said.
When Rushing arrived in Louisville three years ago, he was a highly regarded recruit with many offers from the powerhouses of the Southeastern Conference, but also a teenage prospect who knew he needed to change physically.
McDonnell said in his freshman year, Rushing was already strong at the plate with a rare left-arm power. But he was also “a fat, fat, fat, chubby kid.” They were nicknamed Gummy Bears and Mini Fridges. As a high school football player, he played “somewhere on the line,” McDonnell said. “It was just a fat kid.”
In Louisville, however, Rushing became involved in a weight room program. He revamped his diet with the help of the team’s nutritionists. He worked on increasing his flexibility and overall athleticism.
And, after limited playing time during his first two seasons, he blossomed this year as one of Louisville’s best hitters, winning second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors as well as an All-American from multiple outlets after batting. Ideas earned. 310 and driving 62 on a Cardinals team reached an NCAA Tournament Super Regional.
“Clear stick out this is a power left-handed bat,” McDonnell said. “You see people go into the first round who scored 10 to 12 home runs in college. This guy hit 23. And our park really isn’t friendly to home runs and he’s got a lot of doubts.”
Rushing watched Sunday’s draft from the “Omaha Room” at a Louisville facility, the same venue where another Louisville product, pitcher Bobby Miller, celebrated his selection by the Dodgers in the first round of the 2020 draft.
“I knew it was great as soon as I got that call,” Rushing said. “Louisville players do very well in the Dodgers organization. I’m excited to leave.”
Behind the plate, there’s no better example than Smith, who already had access to the club’s latest prospect — and the latest lucrative product from her alma mater — within minutes of her selection on Sunday night.
“There’s a standard when you hold that in our system,” McDonnell said.
And just like Smith, the Dodgers are hoping it turns into a professional success again with Rushing.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.