Smith enjoys 'that nervous feeling' in spring debut

Royals' new veteran reliever already making a difference in clubhouse, with staff

March 2nd, 2024

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- It took over a week of Cactus League games, but finally donned a Royals uniform for his spring debut on Saturday, tossing a quick seven-pitch scoreless inning in the Royals’ 13-12 win over the Guardians at Goodyear Ballpark.

The reason for the slight delay wasn’t related to an injury; the Royals just brought Smith along slowly at the start of camp because his last three offseasons have been shorter than most other pitchers.

After all, Smith has spent the last three seasons pitching deep into October en route to three World Series titles (with the Braves, Astros and Rangers).

“They’ve done a great job of understanding the past couple of offseasons, I’ve gotten home late,” Smith, 34, said. “We mixed in an extra bullpen, two live BP's and an extra day. … It’s definitely different. You play for an extra month, so there are some guys who have a month and a half head start on you. And being a little bit of an older guy now, you just need some extra time. Nothing hurts, but if you can get an extra ‘pen here and there, get a little extra treatment, you’ll be good to go. I think it’ll help make you fresher the whole season.”

Fully rested, Smith was excited to get on the mound Saturday, and will now be on a normal progression. He’s scheduled to pitch an inning on Tuesday night against the Cubs.

“I’ve always said that when I don’t get nervous anymore, it’s probably time to walk away,” Smith said. “So I was still getting the nerves in the first, second and third leading up to my inning. It felt good to still get that nervous feeling.”

On Saturday, Smith picked up two strikeouts and coaxed a groundout in an efficient, 1-2-3 frame. It’s exactly what the Royals wanted to see from the experienced reliever, who will get opportunities to close games this season in Kansas City. He’ll get things done with his fastball-slider mix, but he’s been working on incorporating his changeup more in games, and threw one on Saturday for a swinging strike.

Signed not only for his veteran presence and strike-throwing capabilities, Smith has also been an incredible clubhouse presence so far, getting to know his new teammates and lending advice to young pitchers.

“He’s really endeared himself quickly to the clubhouse and the staff,” manager Matt Quatraro said. “For as long as he’s been playing, he’s as excited to be here every day as a rookie. That’s what really stands out. He's open to the drills, the PFPs, the bullpens, the communication with the staff and players.”

“Just trying to do what the older guys did for me when I was coming up as a young guy,” Smith added.

Smith is helping lead the charge for a team golf outing on Monday, the Royals’ first off-day of the spring. Outfielder Nate Eaton is in charge of the scheduling, but Smith has inserted himself in the middle of making teams and, of course, starting the trash talking.

“Obviously,” Smith said. “We’re baseball players. That’s what we do.”

Lugo’s focus on breaking balls
The results were not what wanted in his second spring start on Saturday, allowing five runs on five hits and three homers in 2 1/3 innings, but he was less focused on the results and more the execution.

“I felt pretty good,” Lugo said. “I was executing pitches pretty well. Breaking ball is starting to open up. Not happy with the score, but I’m happy with how I felt and how the pitches were coming out.”

Lugo is having a harder time seeing the finishing break on his signature curveball this spring, and the Royals are chalking it up to the dry air in Arizona that causes breaking balls to look different. But Lugo also reached 96 mph at one point on the stadium radar gun, so his fastballs are looking livelier.

Lugo needed 27 pitches in the first inning, causing his exit with two outs, but he was able to return in the second per Spring Training pitching rules. He settled down from then on, finishing his outing with around 55 pitches.

Worth noting
• Saturday’s game was a Cactus League special, with the ball flying out and 25 runs scored between the two teams. Every hitter in the Royals’ starting lineup recorded a hit except second baseman Mike Brosseau. The Royals scored four runs in the top of the ninth to retake the lead, including a two-run, go-ahead homer from Eaton.

• Adam Frazier made his left field debut Saturday, and Quatraro will start to move him around the field more, ensuring he’s ready to play several positions this year.