Given the chance to halt his recent struggles, Drew Smyly hushed his critics and created reason to wonder if the Braves will indeed still draw value from the $11 million invested in him.
Marcell Ozuna’s latest extra-base hit fueled the three-run fourth inning the Braves used to back Smyly’s best start of the young season and complete a three-game series sweep with a 3-2 win over the Nationals on Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park.
“You know, there's so many highs and lows in this game and streaks and slumps,” Smyly said. “It definitely feels good just to get back in the winning circle and then help these guys win.”
There were a lot of things to like -- or be relieved about -- for the Braves, who opened this six-game road trip with three losses to the Blue Jays. They enter this weekend’s battle against the first-place Phillies sitting 1 1/2 games back in the National League East and feeling a little better about Ozuna, Smyly and their under-construction bullpen.
“Last night and today, those were tough games to win,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “There were a lot of gut-wrenching moments. It’s fun when you come out on top.”
The gut-wrenching moments included:
• After Smyly exited with one on and none out in the seventh, Luke Jackson allowed a single. Jackson then retired Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Yadiel Hernandez to escape unscathed. The oft-criticized reliever has bounced back from a rough 2020 season to post a 1.64 ERA through his first 12 appearances this year.
• Edgar Santana issued a walk and allowed two hits, including Yan Gomes’ one-out RBI single in the eighth. This prompted the entry of Grant Dayton, who recorded two of the biggest outs of his career by striking out Kyle Schwarber and Victor Robles, the latter with a called third-strike curveball that had the Nationals steaming.
• Will Smith pitched around Ryan Zimmerman’s ninth-inning leadoff double to notch his seventh save.
“It's never easy to win a Major League game,” Smyly said. “It’s never easy when you play 162 [games]. So, you just have to stay even-keeled and keep going. It’s a grind, physically and emotionally.”
As Ozuna has tallied six of his seven extra-base hits within his past 10 games, the Braves have been given hope he will start producing like he did while leading the NL in homers last year.
Likewise, after seeing Smyly limit the Nationals to four hits and one unearned run over six innings, the Braves are hoping he may soon become the pitcher they envisioned when he signed that one-year deal in November.
Smyly certainly wasn’t that guy when he produced an 8.05 ERA and allowed nine homers in 19 innings entering Thursday. But as the 31-year-old veteran kept the ball in the yard in this most recent outing, he showed why he could be a valuable No. 4 or No. 5 starter.
“You know, every game is a new game,” Smyly said. “It’s a new day to get better. There’s still a lot of work to do. I know I can continue to improve quite a bit. But it feels good to battle and grind out a solid, solid game.”
Smyly didn’t have swing-and-miss stuff and he wasn’t baffling the Nationals with his four-seamer or curveball. But he kept himself ahead in the count while aggressively pounding the strike zone with his fastball.
“Finding the fastball and being able to get ahead of guys is something you always want to do,” veteran catcher Jeff Mathis said. “I just really commend him today on being able to drive that thing in there and being able to get ahead of guys and being able to mix the curveball in the later innings.”
Mathis became Atlanta’s backup catcher when Travis d’Arnaud and Alex Jackson were both put on the injured list this past weekend. The 38-year-old backstop briefly crossed paths with Smyly when the pitcher spent a portion of 2019 with the Rangers.
Snitker gave Mathis his first start of the season with the hope he could help “unlock” Smyly.
Mission accomplished. Now that Smyly has altered the narrative, he’ll attempt to continue pushing it in the right direction.
“There’s definitely a lot of positives,” Smyly said. “You just keep trying to improve.”