'Big rush of emotions' for Smith ahead of ASG

July 9th, 2019

Giants closer took a trip to Cleveland with his friends in November to watch his hometown Atlanta Falcons take on the Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. One of Smith’s buddies is a big Ohio sports fan, so they settled on a wager: The loser had to jump in Lake Erie.

The Browns went on to defeat the Falcons, so Smith dutifully dived into the frigid waters.

“It was not fun,” Smith said Monday. “It was freezing.”

Smith probably didn’t expect to return to Cleveland so soon, but eight months later, he’s back for his first career Midsummer Classic.

“It was a pretty big rush of emotions, for sure,” said Smith, who will be the Giants’ lone representative at the 2019 All-Star Game presented by Mastercard today at Progressive Field. “It’s taken a long time to get back to this, so I was excited. I was thrilled.”

A year ago, Smith was still in the early stages of his comeback from Tommy John surgery, which cost him the 2017 season. He returned to the Majors last May and pitched so well that he was elevated to the closer role by the end of June. Despite having limited experience pitching the ninth, Smith continued to thrive for the Giants.

Smith has been one of the best relievers in the National League this year, going a perfect 23-for-23 in save opportunities while logging a 1.98 ERA over 36 1/3 innings. Smith’s streak of 23 consecutive saves to start the season is the club’s longest since converted 28 straight in 1994.

“He’s been a joy,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “We put him in that role last year, and he did a really nice job. He’s even done a better job this year. He’s been flawless. You look at what this man has gone through, with Tommy John. He really hasn’t been a closer before, up until last year when we gave him that role. He’s run with it this year. I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Smith, who turns 30 on Wednesday, is averaging 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest rate of his career, and he has held opposing batters to a .486 OPS, the fourth-lowest mark among NL relievers. His slider has been a wipeout pitch for him this season, as opponents have hit only .100 (6-for-60) against it with a .200 slugging percentage, according to Baseball Savant.

Smith was one of the bright spots in an overall disappointing first half for the Giants, who went into the All-Star break sitting at the bottom of the NL West with a 41-48 record, though they're only 5 1/2 games out of an NL Wild Card spot. His All-Star candidacy became so apparent that joked that he congratulated him a week before the NL rosters were officially announced.

“You play to be one of the best,” Smith said. “To be considered one of the best at the halfway point, I guess it’s a good feeling.”

The Giants acquired Smith from the Brewers at the 2016 Trade Deadline in exchange for former first-round Draft pick Phil Bickford and catcher , and Smith is already starting to hear his name mentioned in trade rumors again this year. An impending free agent, Smith will be one of the most coveted relievers available at the July 31 Trade Deadline, making him a key asset for the Giants as they look to infuse their organization with younger talent.

Smith is aware of the speculation, but he said he remains unbothered by the noise.

“I’ve been traded three times already, so it’s not like I’m worried about getting traded or anything like that,” Smith said. “As long as I’ve got black and orange on, I’ll try my hardest to win for them. You don’t expect it to happen, but if it does, it’s not a huge shock or anything like that.”

The All-Star Game presented by Mastercard will be televised nationally by FOX Sports; in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS; and worldwide by partners in more than 180 countries. FOX Deportes will provide Spanish-language coverage in the United States, while ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage. MLB Network, MLB.com and SiriusXM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage.