Smith finding success in Seattle's setup role
SEATTLE -- While new general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have indicated beefing up the Mariners bullpen will be a point of emphasis this offseason, one piece of the puzzle already in place is hard-throwing right-hander Carson Smith.
In a season where the relief crew struggled to live up to expectations, Smith proved himself as a late-inning force and etched his name in the club's record book in the process.
The 26-year-old didn't allow a run in 11 April appearances, overtaking Mark Lowe's club record with 19 1/3 scoreless innings to start a career before seeing his streak end just nine appearances shy of Brad Ziegler's Major League record 29 straight scoreless appearances.
In his final outing of the season on Oct. 3, Smith struck out Coco Crisp in the eighth inning of the Mariners' extra-inning loss to the A's to notch his 92nd strikeout of the season, tying a club record for strikeouts in a rookie season set by Enrique Romo in 1977, 12 years before Smith was born.
Smith's 2015 campaign ended with a 2.31 ERA and 70 appearances, tied for ninth-most in the American League. It wasn't without its rough patches, but it provided Smith with plenty of opportunities to grow as his focus now shifts toward his second full season with the Mariners.
"It was a long season," Smith said. "There was some good, some bad, some ups and some downs, but being my first full season, I picked up on a few things."
There were few lows for Smith in 2015, but his most difficult stretch came in late July and August, in the middle of his first stint as Seattle's closer.
He was never officially given the title by former manager Lloyd McClendon, but as the saves, innings and appearances began to pile on, McClendon said he saw more fatigue from the young right-hander. In 16 appearances between July 25 and Aug. 30, Smith posted a 5.40 ERA and converted just four of eight save opportunities.
"I have a short memory. As a reliever, it's tough when you're pitching in late innings, game's on the line a lot of the time, and I'm just taking each day and just trying to not look too far ahead or too far behind you," said Smith, who ended up recorded 13 saves.
"It's a tough job. I think anybody that's done it can tell you that. I know I feel I'm fully capable of doing it, but once you're out there, you've got to treat it like any other inning, and try not to let the adrenaline get the situation and just go out there and compete."
Smith didn't face another save situation for the final month of the season, as Tom Wilhelmsen moved into the closer's role, but Smith's September wasn't without its high-stress innings. Smith pitched in 12 games from Sept. 1 to the end of the regular season, all in the seventh inning or later. He didn't allow a run over those final 12 2/3 innings and held opponents to a .182 batting average while striking out 20 hitters and walking just three.
Smith proved very capable in the eighth-inning setup role. He pitched in that frame for 28 2/3 innings, posting a 0.94 ERA and managed to keep hitters off balance with his signature slider, even as appearances began to mount.
"Playing in the Minor Leagues, you don't get the [pitching in] three out of four [games] as often as you do up here. Winning means a whole lot more up here," Smith said. "The stress that your arm takes, you've got to learn how to take care of it and maintain. I think I'm only going to get better with that as the years go on. Next year I'll rebound better."
In preparation for next season, Smith has moved to Houston, where he's beginning to train again this month in anticipation of starting up his throwing program in mid-December. He said he doesn't take much stock in his rookie records, but is encouraged as he looks back on his first full season in the Major Leagues.
"It's always good to go out knowing you can get guys out at this level," Smith said. "Hopefully I'll carry that into next year."