Smoker thrilled to make Opening Day roster

After enduring highs and lows, reliever seizing opportunity with Pirates

March 29th, 2018

DETROIT -- Earlier this week, Josh Smoker made a couple of calls to share the news: He was going to make the Pirates' Opening Day roster. His father, Mike, didn't stay on the phone for long.

"I hate it when he cries in front of me," Smoker said, smiling. "I don't like when people cry. I just don't like it."

Smoker called his wife, Nicole, a special education teacher at North Paulding High School. Every once in a while, Smoker will see he's been followed on social media by a kid from the small-town Atlanta suburbs -- one of Nicole's students. On the phone, Smoker could hear them buzzing in the background during class.

"They knew what the call was for," Smoker said. "She keeps them in check with everything that's going on with me. They kind of knew."

They all knew Smoker went through a lot to make Pittsburgh's eight-man bullpen. The left-hander was selected by the Nationals in the first round of the 2007 MLB Draft, but only after major shoulder surgeries and a brief stint in the independent Frontier League did he finally catch on with the Mets two years ago.

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"The story itself gives hope for anyone who's playing the game," manager Clint Hurdle said. "You talk about highs and lows. You talk about perseverance. You talk about getting to the point where maybe nobody cares. You've got to fight your way back.

"Everyone has a place in them that roots for the underdog or maybe the guy who's not the prettiest, shiniest, the fan-favorite that comes up and gets something done. This'll be fun to watch how he takes this opportunity."

Smoker made his first Opening Day roster last season and struggled, though he rebounded down the stretch. On Jan. 26, the Mets designated him for assignment. The Pirates acquired him five days later and gave him a chance.

The affable Georgian gushed all spring about the mood in Pittsburgh's clubhouse, calling it a "great group of guys." He felt less pressure to make the roster than in years past, focusing more on himself than the competition. He was pleased with his command and his slider, a previously problematic pitch that he now says is "the best it's ever felt."

Hurdle indicated that Smoker, and will mostly be used when the Pirates are tied or trailing. Smoker also may be called upon to face some of the National League Central's tough left-handed hitters.

Late in Spring Training, pitching coach Ray Searage pulled aside Smoker and encouraged him to trust his talent. Smoker can't utilize his arsenal, Searage said, if he continues to fall behind in counts. After a first-pitch ball, for instance, hitters slash .271/.405/.551 against Smoker. After a first-pitch strike, he's allowed a career .242/.309/.363 line.

"He shows flashes of being a consistent left-handed reliever. There's a lot of deep counts that he gets into," Searage said. "There's something to work with there. There's tools. There's weapons."

Pittsburgh's bullpen competition went down to the wire, but Smoker had a feeling he would make the club. It was just an unexplainable hunch, he said. Much to the delight of his parents, Nicole and a classroom of kids in northwest Georgia, it turned out to be right.

"I've said it from Day 1: My parents and my wife, everything I've been through, they've been through, too," Smoker said. "For as sweet as it is for me, they're having the same feelings as me. I'm just glad they get to experience it with me. Looking forward to moving on from here."