By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – When Chad Smith blew out his elbow on a ninth-inning first-pitch slider against Oregon on April 17, 2011, everything changed. Major league teams had told Smith, then a junior at USC, that he could be drafted as high as the second round. After the injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery, many of the clubs stopped talking to Smith.
The Detroit Tigers took him in the 17th round, and in 2013, Smith turned a corner. Not a pitcher who had gotten much attention coming into the 2014 season, Smith got his big-league call-up Wednesday. He had pitched 22 innings over 15 outings for Triple-A Toledo, where he recorded a 1.64 ERA.
“Just in talking to [Toledo manager] Larry Parrish, getting reports on what his stuff looks like, how he’s pitched, he’s pitched very well,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “He’s not a guy that was really on the radar in spring training but has pitched his way on the radar over the first three months of the season.”
Smith pitched in just 14 games in 2012 but made 43 appearances last season. Regaining his velocity following surgery took time, but now he feels completely healthy and is once again confident in his arm.
“First coming back, 88 to 90, but it was 88, 90 at the backstop,” Smith said. “It was either right down the middle, backstop, behind him, it was one of those things I couldn’t explain. My mind knew what to do, but my body couldn’t do it, so that was a mental block that I had for a long time.
“Just kind of slowly over time I got stronger and I finally truly trusted my elbow and wasn’t scared,” Smith continued. “That was the biggest thing, to be out on the mound and just let it go and not be worried about what happens. I know I’m fully healthy. I had a great surgeon, and I’m ready to go.”
Smith started the 2014 season in Double-A Erie but moved up to Toledo after seven outings. His rapid ascent has surprised even him.
“Coming into spring training, I was thinking starting High A and hopefully finish the season in Double A,” Smith said. “And then when I was able to start in Double A, I was like, ‘Man, I just hope I stay in Double A and don’t get moved down to High A, and then I got a call on a Sunday from our manager Lance Parrish in Double A, and he said I’m going up and I’m like shocked, and then even last night I was even more shocked.”
Standing in front of his new locker in the Tigers clubhouse Wednesday morning, he gave a quick rundown of his repertoire.
“I throw a lot of sinkers,” Smith said. “That’s kind of been my pitch. I kind of figured that out this spring. The catcher kept calling it, I kept throwing it, and they weren’t hitting it, so I just kind of rolled with that. I’m a sinker, slider pitcher and I’m out of the bullpen. I’m been in the sixth, seventh inning mainly this year. I have no idea what I’m going to do up here, but I’ll be ready to go.”
An Smith spoke, a clubhouse attendant a few feet away packed up the possessions of Evan Reed, the reliever whom the Tigers had just sent down to Toledo in a corresponding move. Reed had been seen walking up out of the clubhouse a few minutes before reporters were allowed in.
Ausmus said he still thinks Reed has a chance to be a good major league pitcher but said he was just not working out for the Tigers at the moment.
“He wasn’t commanding the pitches and he was getting behind hitters, and even at 97 miles an hour, when you’re behind hitters, that can be an issue,” Ausmus said. “When he was pitching well … he was getting ahead, he had the hitters on their heels. He’s at his best when he attacks the hitters. He’s got a power arm. He’s got the ability to pitch at the major league level. He’s got to get more consistent with his mechanics, especially on the slider.
“He was a guy, really, for a good part of the season I trusted if we had to bridge that gap to [Al] Alburquerque, [Joba] Chamberlain and [Joe] Nathan,” Ausmus added. “He was the guy I kind of leaned on to bridge that gap, and he did a good job for a period of time in that role.”
Detroit’s bullpen has been getting plenty of work recently as the starters have recently gotten knocked around much more than usual. Longtime ace Justin Verlander allowed seven earned runs Monday, and 2013 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer gave up 10 earned runs Tuesday. The high totals were not anomalies; both Verlander and Scherzer have struggled in recent weeks.
Drew Smyly starts for the Tigers on Wednesday, and it would help Detroit significantly if Smyly could go deep in the game. Ausmus said he does not want to put any extra pressure on Smyly, though.
“I just want him to go out there and pitch his game and do the best he can, but me going up and saying – it’s like JFK calling the fighter pilots saying, ‘Don’t get shot down over Cuba,'” Ausmus said. “I don’t think that’s going to help him calm down if I say, ‘Hey, listen, you’ve got to win this game today.’ That’s not something I want to throw on his shoulders.”