NOAH TRISTER,AP Baseball Writer
LAKELAND, Fla. (AP) — Drew Smyly thought back to last year and tried to pick one moment that stood out as the highlight.
It wasn’t easy.
The Detroit left-hander won a job in the rotation in spring training, made his major league debut, started 18 games, came out of the bullpen in a huge playoff victory at Yankee Stadium — and finished the season pitching in the World Series.
“A lot to choose from — hard to say. Obviously playoffs, that was something I never really expected or thought much about,” Smyly said. “Pitching in the World Series was breathtaking almost.”
Smyly doesn’t turn 24 until June, but already he’s experienced a lot at the big league level. A somewhat surprising choice to be the No. 5 starter last year, he showed poise from the beginning, and when a midseason trade bumped him out of the rotation, Smyly kept contributing in relief.
His role isn’t clear this season either — he’s competing with Rick Porcello for the last rotation spot — but not much seems to faze Smyly after he reached the majors less than two years after being drafted.
“Same mindset, same goal, same objectives. I’m a little more comfortable,” Smyly said. “I feel more at home than I did last year.”
Smyly was among six pitchers with a chance to become Detroit’s No. 5 starter out of spring training last year. He won the job despite never having pitched above Double-A.
Smyly went 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA, but he was bothered by a blister on his left middle finger and a right intercostal strain. After the Tigers traded for Anibal Sanchez, they didn’t need Smyly to start.
But they still needed him to be ready.
In Game 1 of the AL championship series, Smyly made his postseason debut in a tense situation. Closer Jose Valverde had wasted a four-run lead in the ninth inning in New York, and Smyly came on in the 11th. He allowed a leadoff single but nothing more, and after the Tigers scored two runs in the 12th, the rookie set down the Yankees in order to preserve the win.
Detroit went on to sweep the series, then lost to San Francisco in the World Series in four straight games.
The Tigers re-signed Sanchez, leaving Smyly and Porcello to vie for the last spot in the rotation. That competition is still in progress, and Smyly pitched two scoreless innings Monday in an exhibition game against Philadelphia. Cliff Lee started that game for the Phillies. He and Smyly are both from the Little Rock area in Arkansas.
“I don’t know if he tries to emulate me but he has asked a few questions and I try to give some pointers here and there,” Lee said. “I’m more than happy to help.”
Smyly said he watched every pitch when Lee was on the mound, to observe the Philadelphia left-hander’s approach.
“I always like seeing how he attacks the hitters, what he throws in certain counts, because I feel like we’re pretty much the same. I always like to take notes when he pitches,” Smyly said. “He commands his pitches so well, in and out. Guys never know what’s coming. Watching that, it’s what I want to do. You know, I’m not going to blow a fastball by every guy, so I have to work in and out.”
Calm, polished but still eager to learn, Smyly says he’s been working on his changeup, which he didn’t have much confidence in last year.
Whether he wins a spot in the rotation or not, he figures he can help the Tigers in any way they need after his busy rookie season.
“I got a little bit of everything — a little experience for every spot,” Smyly said. “Obviously, I like to be a starter, that’s what I’d like to be, but I can throw out of the bullpen.”
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