No. 4 prospect's strong debut sets up veteran's clutch slam

Smith-Shawver pitches 2 1/3 scoreless innings before Rosario seals win

June 5th, 2023

PHOENIX -- AJ Smith-Shawver’s magical journey became even more special on Sunday, when he made an impressive MLB debut that set the stage for Eddie Rosario to send the Braves home in grand fashion.

Rosario’s ninth-inning grand slam with two outs gave the Braves a thrilling 8-5 comeback win over the D-backs at Chase Field. 9:43 The slam backed 2 1/3 scoreless innings from the 20-year-old Smith-Shawver, who became the second-youngest Atlanta pitcher to debut this century.

“You really can’t draw it up better than that,” Smith-Shawver said. “It’s a pretty cool experience. Offense comes up big and wins the game for us. It’s pretty awesome.”

A six-game road trip that began with consecutive losses in Oakland ended with consecutive wins against a D-backs team that entered Saturday with six straight wins and was tied for the National League’s best record.

The Braves entered Saturday with the NL’s second-worst record since May 10, and they exited Sunday with the NL's best record. It’s safe to say Smith-Shawver’s dazzling relief effort and Rosario’s slam significantly strengthened the Braves’ psyche.

“I like how we hung around in that game,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “It shows the kind of mettle that we have and what these guys are made of.”

Rosario hit a pair of solo homers in Friday’s night’s series-opening loss and entered Sunday with five extra-base hits over his past five games. So the 2021 NL Championship Series MVP was rounding into form even before he drilled Miguel Castro’s center-cut fastball over the right-center-field wall. It was his fifth career grand slam and first since 2020.

“I was just banging on the [dugout rail] padding,” Smith-Shawver said. “It’s pretty freaking cool.”

The same can be said of Smith-Shawver’s meteoric rise. He didn’t begin pitching until he threw approximately 15 innings for a travel team during the summer of 2020. He then made nine starts during his senior season of high school and was drafted by the Braves in the seventh round of the 2021 MLB Draft.  

A $997,500 signing bonus was enough for Smith-Shawver to pass on the opportunity to play quarterback and pitch at Texas Tech. He made 17 starts during his first full Minor League season last year and started this season at High-A Rome. Smith-Shawver made three starts there, two at the Double-A level and then two more at the Triple-A level before getting an unexpected call to the Majors early Tuesday morning, just after he had hopped on a scooter to find breakfast in Norfolk, Va. 

“I thought he handled himself really, really well,” Snitker said. “His stuff was pretty good.”

Smith-Shawver’s fastball touched 97.1 mph and averaged 94.7 mph as he recorded three strikeouts during a 2 1/3-inning effort that was blemished only by an eighth-inning walk. He had sat idly in the bullpen since being promoted on Tuesday, but he entered this game with the Braves facing a two-run deficit in the sixth. Snitker said Smith-Shawver would have been used had Atlanta tied the game or taken the lead at that point. 

“I knew exactly what I was going to see,” Michael Soroka said. “He goes out there and attacks. You can see he’s a great competitor and athlete. He left it all out there.”

Smith-Shawver began pitching around the same time Soroka first tore his right Achilles tendon on Aug. 3, 2020. That same tendon tore again 11 months later, leading to another year of rehab. So there was cause for celebration when Soroka made it back to the Majors at the start of this road trip.

But Soroka's first two starts are a reminder he’s not back to the level he was during his 2018 season, when he ranked third in the NL with a 2.68 ERA. He issued four walks, surrendered seven hits and allowed five runs in just 3 2/3 innings against the D-backs.

Soroka’s struggles helped create this opportunity for Smith-Shawver, who took advantage of the chance to add to an incredible season and begin what could be a special career.

“It just doesn’t feel real yet,” Smith-Shawver said. “I’m waiting to get settled in a little bit. I think this outing is going to help.”