HOUSTON -- How long has Joe Smith had to wait to finally make an appearance on a World Series roster? Long enough that Astros manager AJ Hinch toyed with the idea of playing a joke on the veteran reliever by calling him into his office to tell him he wasn't actually making the roster.
Hinch wouldn't have actually done this, of course. And, by Hinch's estimation, Smith probably wouldn't have believed him anyway. The point is this -- the 35-year-old Smith has waited a long time for this moment, so long, in fact, that the sheer time between his first Major League game and his first World Series appearance, which could happen as early as Game 1 on Tuesday, is newsworthy.
"How many people get to play in this?" Smith said. "I've played with a lot of people who haven't even made the postseason, let alone a World Series. Any time you get to play in it -- that's what you dream of. That's going to be fun. I'm excited."
It's been quite a wait. Smith has pitched in 782 regular-season games, the most among active pitchers who haven't appeared in a Fall Classic. He’s ahead of Joakim Soria (710 games) and Oliver Pérez (670).
When Smith’s streak ends is to be determined -- bullpen utilization is solely dependent on how the prior innings unfold. But consider Smith as an odds-on favorite to appear at some point during the World Series, for two reasons: He's the Astros' best relief option against right-handed hitters and, on a slightly lesser scale in terms of importance, Hinch is very much looking forward to getting his veteran reliever into one of these games.
"I'm proud for him," Hinch said. "It will probably be one of the first games he's nervous. He's hardly ever nervous, but I bet he'll be a tick nervous just because of the stage and the World Series and the excitement of having to endure all that before he gets to throw his first pitch in the World Series."
Smith has played in four postseasons prior to 2019. He was with the Indians in 2013, '14 and '17, and he was on Houston's 2018 American League Championship Series roster after not making the cut in the first round. None of those teams reached the Fall Classic.
After missing a large chunk of the regular season this year due to surgery on a torn Achilles tendon, Smith has an elevated appreciation for not only being healthy and on the active postseason roster, but to also be contributing in meaningful ways.
"Being with this group, last year, I still felt a part of it even though I wasn't in the first round vs. Cleveland," Smith said. "But even to be here for a whole year, or now, two years, to know the team, the camaraderie, to feel like you've actually done something to contribute, it's always a great feeling."
Feel-good story aside, the side-armer Smith has been a stabilizer in the 'pen through October. He made six appearances in the AL Division Series and ALCS, all in critical situations, totaling 3 2/3 innings. His lone blemish was a solo homer he yielded to Gleyber Torres in the eighth inning of Game 3 of the ALCS. Otherwise, Smith held opponents scoreless, including a clean eighth inning during the Astros' 6-4 win over the Yankees in Game 6 that clinched the AL pennant.
That was a "bullpen game," and before it started, Hinch told Smith he would probably get the second inning, possibly matching him up with Gary Sanchez or Gio Urshela. Hinch ended up opting for Josh James, saving Smith for the later innings.
That sparked a playful conversation between manager and pitcher during the clubhouse celebration when the clinch was complete. Smith had told his family to get to the ballpark early.
"After the game, he yelled at me," Hinch said. "He said, 'You told me you were going to pitch me second.' I'm like, 'No. I meant second-to-last.'"
In the World Series, for the first few games at least, Smith can anticipate a slightly more traditional approach with regard to his manager navigating through nine innings. The Astros' rotation features Gerrit Cole in Game 1, Justin Verlander in Game 2 and Zack Greinke in Game 3. That would suggest, on paper at least, that the bullpen's call to duty will arrive later in the games.
Smith's calling may be when a cluster of righties are coming up in the Nats lineup. Right-handed hitters slashed .196/.211/.232 against him this season; in Smith's 13-year career, they've hit .215/.278/.308.
When Hinch calls for Smith in the World Series, it will be for practical purposes first. But there may be room for a touch of sentimentality, too.
"He's a very likable guy in the clubhouse, super positive-type guy," Hinch said. "He has been on a lot of different teams. If a guy sticks around this long and evolves as a pitcher, it means he's a weapon and he's also got some veteran savvy to him that teams buy in on."