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Racing fan Smoker 'on right track' for 'pen role

Lefty has not allowed a run in five innings pitched this spring
MLB.com @adamdberry

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Josh Smoker couldn't remember the last automobile race he attended in person. Maybe it was in high school, after his days behind the wheel were over. But Smoker still felt at home Sunday, when he and George Kontos took a trip to watch the IndyCar Series' Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"It was cool getting back in that atmosphere," Smoker said before Monday's 8-5 loss to the Orioles. "I tell you what, I missed the smell of the racing fuel. That's something you'll never forget."

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Josh Smoker couldn't remember the last automobile race he attended in person. Maybe it was in high school, after his days behind the wheel were over. But Smoker still felt at home Sunday, when he and George Kontos took a trip to watch the IndyCar Series' Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"It was cool getting back in that atmosphere," Smoker said before Monday's 8-5 loss to the Orioles. "I tell you what, I missed the smell of the racing fuel. That's something you'll never forget."

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Smoker returned to the mound on Monday and fired a scoreless seventh inning. Competing for a spot in the Opening Day bullpen, the left-hander has allowed only one hit and a walk while striking out five batters in five shutout innings this spring.

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"My mindset going into [Spring Training] was not trying to do too much, going out and being myself and having fun and pitching, not trying to worry about things I can't control," Smoker said. "I feel like I've done a pretty good job of that."

Looking to lock down a bullpen job, Smoker also knew he'd need a sharper slider than he offered most of last season, when he posted a 5.11 ERA out of the Mets' bullpen. He started throwing the pitch earlier in the offseason than usual, and that work has paid off so far.

"This is probably the best it's been this early in camp, which is very good news for me," he said. "That's something I was looking forward to, hoping my slider was going to be where I wanted it to be."

Video: Berry on Smoker's chances to make Pirates' bullpen

Before baseball became his career, racing was his passion. Smoker's father, Mike, is an engineer who provides parts for everything from go-karts to bigger race cars. Growing up in Calhoun, Ga., Smoker got into racing when he was 4 years old, driving quarter midgets before progressing to Bandolero and late-model cars. The last time Smoker raced, he said, he was 14 years old.

Tweet from @Josh_Smoker: Green green! And the 2018 Verizon @IndyCar season is underway. Can't thank @Team_Penske enough for letting me join! Thanks to @G_Kontos for coming along with me. pic.twitter.com/rWpCIOLv4y

Smoker, 29, is perfectly content on the mound now.

"You'll lose your instincts pretty fast," he said, smiling. "It takes a different person to get behind the wheel of a car and go 200 mph."

Glasnow scratched
Tyler Glasnow missed his scheduled start on Monday due to flu-like symptoms. Right-hander Alex McRae started in his place against the Orioles and threw three scoreless innings.

Even with a fastball touching 100 mph, a biting curveball and an improved changeup, Glasnow has allowed 11 runs on 12 hits and three walks in 7 2/3 innings this spring. Glasnow is competing for a spot in the Opening Day bullpen, but could be sent to start in Triple-A Indianapolis if the Bucs feel they have better options.

"That next step is going to be an important one for him," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We're still really excited about what he can be, and the flashes we've seen this spring have been better than really at any point he's had a Major League opportunity. We just need to build on those."

Around the horn
• Third baseman Colin Moran went 2-for-4 with an RBI on Monday and is now 9-for-19 over his last six games.

"I think he's a confident hitter in the box. He's got a good offensive eye," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's hunting pitches. We've seen the guy that we thought we would see coming in."

Video: BAL@PIT: Moran hits an RBI single to right field

• Reliever Dovydas Neverauskas, competing for a bullpen spot, allowed five runs (four earned) on four hits and a walk in the fourth inning. The right-hander posted a 3.54 ERA and .676 opponents' OPS the final two months of last season.

"He's been behind in counts and pitches have been elevated," Hurdle said. "He was working from behind, and the command hasn't been what we've been able to see from him in the past."

• The Pirates have told Kontos he will be the primary eighth-inning setup man for closer Felipe Rivero, as he was late last season, Hurdle said.

Up next
After Tuesday's off-day, the Pirates will return to action on Wednesday at 1:05 ET at LECOM Park, live on MLB.TV. Opening Day starter Ivan Nova is slated to pitch against the Rays, followed by Rivero, Kontos and right-handers Michael Feliz and Nick Kingham.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Josh Smoker