Drayer: Joe Smith has been Mariners’ new impact arm since trade deadline

Aug 20, 2021, 12:50 AM
Mariners Joe Smith...
Joe Smith, the MLB's active leader in appearances, hasn't allowed a run for the M's. (Getty)

As the Mariners take on the Houston Astros in a three-game weekend series, the spotlight that will be placed on the July 27 trade between the two teams will be unavoidable.

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With a portion of the fan base, the feeling is that adding Abraham Toro is nice, but Kendall Graveman (or his mere presence) would have prevented every single one of the Mariners’ 10 losses since that day. A more pragmatic group would note that the Mariners had to limit Graveman’s usage because of the bone tumor in his cervical spine, and that without Toro’s production the Mariners would not have even been in position to need his leverage arm late in games.

What most groups will likely miss is the impact of another member of that trade: Joe Smith.

While it was Diego Castillo who was acquired days later from the Rays with the intention of being the impact addition to the pen, it’s been Smith who has better resembled the fireman for the Mariners. Despite Smith accumulating a 7.48 ERA this season with the Astros, Mariners manager Scott Servais has not been shy about going to the 37-year-old sidewinder in trouble spots, and he has been rewarded with Smith stranding all six runners he has inherited and not surrendering an earned run his first 10 appearances as a Mariner.

In Thursday’s sweep-clinching 9-8 win over Texas in extra innings – which an emotional Servais called the “ultimate gut-check game” – it was Smith who picked up the win, pitching a scoreless 10th inning.

Asking Smith to go out and intentionally walk the leadoff batter with the designated runner already on second, force a double play and then come up with the third out to give the Mariners’ offense another chance to score was probably not in the original game plan, but it probably didn’t force a blink from the veteran of 14 major league seasons and eight postseason series, just as finding out he was traded three weeks ago didn’t, either.

“You get a little more used to it, but it’s weird,” Smith admitted shortly after the trade. “You spend so much time with your team in spring training, 12 hours a day. For me, I’ve been with the Astros for going on my fourth year so it was like a family over there. Any time you leave and change, it’s not always a bad thing but it’s just different. But if you play long enough in baseball, it’s going to happen. You’ve just got to get used to it the best you can and come in with a positive attitude. We are still just playing ball and trying to get a wild card spot.”

The trade was just another adjustment in what has been a season of adjustments for Smith.

After opting out of 2020 to spend time with his mother, who lost her battle with Huntington’s Disease just over a year ago, the struggle he encountered in his return to baseball caught him by surprise. After posting a 2.16 ERA with the Astros in 2019 and owning a 2.98 career ERA prior to 2021, Smith gave up eight earned runs in his first eight appearances of the season.

“It was a much bigger hurdle on the mental side than I thought it would ever be,” he said of his return. “When you get done with the season, I’ve been fortunate, since 2016 I’ve played on a 100-win team. A lot of times we are getting home and it’s Nov. 2. Our breaks have been really short. You are turning it off for a week or two and then getting right back into it, and two months later it’s Christmas and you are heading to camp. You don’t really get out of it. It was the weirdest thing ever. It was almost like I was retired then came back out of retirement, and just getting back that mental edge that you have to have to compete at this level every day and be good, it was a real challenge.”

A challenge that appears to be in the rear-view mirror. His new challenge: help his new team get to the postseason, and maybe teach a young guy a thing or two along the way. He’s quickly made himself at home in the Mariners’ bullpen despite not knowing much about this group before the trade.

“I knew they had a lot of weird names I had trouble pronouncing,” he said with a laugh. “But as the year went on you start seeing certain stats come out, and these guys, it was kind of like, alright, let’s see what they do.”

While there have been a few bumps in the bullpen road since the trade, Smith likes what he has seen with his fellow relievers.

“It’s been great,” he said. “They’re confident. It’s a really good group. They love each other and they are all throwing the ball well and trusting their stuff. I think it’s a big reason why we are still in it.”

As the “they” has turned to “we,” Smith’s contributions have been significant as the Mariners attempt to chase down a spot in the playoffs. And with each outing he adds to his mark as MLB’s active leader in appearances by a pitcher, which after Thursday’s game is 619. When asked about the mark, the initial reaction is very “aw shucks.” When pressed, the accomplishment is given its due.

“I am proud of it,” Smith admitted. “That’s one thing in my career, not being a closer, you need something for goals every year so my goals were always games related. I figured one, if you are doing well they are going to throw you out there, you are going to get games. But two, taking the challenge to be healthy and be one of the everyday guys they call out of the pen and to be fortunate enough not to have too many major injuries that I can come back from and pitch.

“But I want to keep going. I told my wife if I get to 900 maybe I will be impressed, but my goal was always 1,000. We will see how this year goes.”

With the Mariners this year, so far, so good.

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