TEMPE, Ariz. -- After nearly two years on the mend from elbow surgery, Rangers left-hander Drew Smyly returned to the mound Thursday for his most meaningful pitch in a long time, one he wasn’t certain he’d ever have the opportunity to throw.
So who better than perhaps the most formidable hitter in the game, Angels superstar Mike Trout, to welcome Smyly back?
"In a weird way, I was excited to see him in there," said Smyly, who retired Trout on a grounder and popped out the other two batters he faced to start the Rangers’ 10-6 win. "You’re away from the game for so long and do so much rehab, and even though it’s a spring game, [it’s] the first Major League game and you get to face the best in the world.
"It’s just a huge step forward. … I could tell right away that my fastball was getting on guys, so that’s a really good sign that it’s still jumping on them, having that late life, which I need. I’m walking away feeling very excited."
Like fellow Rangers starters Edinson Volquez and Shelby Miller, Smyly is recovering from Tommy John surgery, but his road back has been longer; Smyly last pitched in a Major League game on Sept. 26, 2016, as a member of the Rays, before bouncing through the Mariners’ and Cubs’ organizations with only a single Minor League inning in 2018 to show for his travels.
After undergoing the elbow surgery on July 6, 2017, Smyly’s goal of returning to the Majors late last season did not materialize. He made a brief rehab start at Class A South Bend at the end of August, but he wasn’t ready in time to join the Cubs, who didn’t have innings to spare for a reclamation project in the middle of a pennant race.
In November, the Rangers acquired Smyly in a trade with Chicago for a player to be named later. Smyly compiled a 3.74 ERA in 570 1/3 innings over his first five years in the Majors before the injury.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t have pretty brutal days throughout the rehab process, where I thought I’d never be able to throw a baseball again and my arm’s never going to be the same, just wondering when that first game will be, if I’ll ever get to face a Major League hitter again -- all those thoughts run through your head,” Smyly said.
Thursday’s work seemed relatively easy for Smyly, considering he was only expected to pitch one inning and did so efficiently. He’ll stay on regular rest and try to go for two innings next time out, building up more length over the spring.
Even though there are dozens of batters left to face before Opening Day, it’s almost hard to imagine Smyly having a more consequential matchup than the one he started with on Thursday. It wasn’t the first time he’d thrown a pitch to Trout, who is 3-for-14 (.214) with two doubles and three RBIs off him in regular-season games. But given the circumstances, it was a memorable meeting.
“There was zero fear,” manager Chris Woodward said. “It’s pretty cool that he attacked him. He went right after him and attacked him and won it.”