TAMPA — Brandon Smith isn't in USF's baseball lineup every day, which is perfectly fine by the 22-year-old senior first baseman.
A start here, a pinch-hit there, that's plenty for Smith, who has hit .382 in conference play for the Bulls, who are in first place in the Big East standings with a 16-3 record, hopeful of their first NCAA berth in seven years.
"He's played a huge role down the stretch," said coach Lelo Prado, whose team beat Cincinnati 8-2 in the first of three games this weekend. "We've let him play, and he's had some big hits for us. I'm pulling like crazy for him, because everything he's been through, he really shouldn't even be playing."
Smith feels lucky to be able to play baseball, but that's overshadowed by feeling lucky to be alive. A year ago, he spent a week in the intensive care unit at Tampa General Hospital after a trainer diagnosed a blood clot in his right arm.
The successful surgery, the first of eight he would have, dissolved the clot but resulted in more than 2 liters of blood filling his right lung. The lung was drained, a chest tube inserted, and Smith received two blood transfusions. His parents flew in from California, and teammates and coaches visited daily, rotating in at the hospital's limit of three visitors at any time.
"I used to leave there nervous, seeing all the tubes coming out of his body," Prado said. "You look at his chest now, he has scars everywhere. He's given up a lot to be here with us."
More surgeries followed, with his first (top) rib removed to allow more room for the damaged vein, and a Teflon vein was inserted to aid blood flow to his right arm. He has a long, pink scar stretching across his chest to his right arm and a small scar on his right wrist from another procedure that helped him return to baseball.
"I'm not going to be the same player I was, physically," Smith said. "I know I can still help the team, in more ways than one. … It means so much to me to take ground balls with my teammates, joke around with them in the dugout, take batting practice. The little things."
Cleared by doctors in January, Smith pushed himself and made the starting lineup for USF's season opener, going 1-for-3. He wasn't physically ready yet and went more than a month before his next hit, but week by week he has gotten stronger and picked up his old timing at the plate. He went 6-for-12 in a series at Villanova two weeks ago, and now has the team's third-best batting average in conference play.
Smith's overall average (.308) is higher than what he hit last year before he was sidelined (.288), but the biggest difference is in his perspective.
"There are times when I'll watch some of the younger guys get upset about making an out," he said. "I'll talk to them: 'I used to do that. I used to be that way. Just let it go. In the big scheme of things, you're going to get three more at-bats today. It's not the end of the world.'
"You can find enjoyment about just being able to go out to the field. I've gotten a chance to take a deep breath, relax, stop being frustrated, and just start enjoying the game."
After a win Wednesday against UCF, Prado points to his own arm and the goose bumps he gets just by talking about Smith and his importance to the team.
Smith may play his last baseball in the next month, but he will graduate in the summer with a degree in criminology and sees a future in law enforcement. He wants to return to his family in California, including his son, Jayce, who turns 2 in July. Prado already has talked with him about returning to USF as a coach down the road.
"I'll do anything for a kid like that, because he's given me everything he has," Prado said. "He almost gave me his life. He almost died on us. … It's unbelievable. He's going to walk out of here with his degree this summer. Most guys would have given it up."