Smyly draws comparison to Phillies star in debut

July 21st, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- 's debut start with Philadelphia couldn’t have gone much better, as the left-hander picked apart the Pirates’ lineup while allowing just one run over six innings in the Phillies’ 2-1, 11-inning win in the series finale at PNC Park.

Manager Gabe Kapler said Smyly pitched like “a professional,” and on a day when one Phillies legend was being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Kapler and others in the visiting dugout saw flashes of another Philadelphia legend in Smyly’s poise.

"Some of us were like, 'He kind of looks like Cliff Lee out there,’” Kapler said. “... It's different in some ways, but there's something about the delivery that I know [pitching coach Chris Young] picked up on and that's something that rang true to me, as well."

Like Lee, Smyly grew up in Arkansas and came to the Phillies in his 30's after last pitching for the Rangers in the Major Leagues. Both are listed at 6-foot-3, and both throw good curveballs.

Smyly had his best version of that curve working against the Pirates. He drew eight swinging strikes with the offering, which helped him finish off five of his eight punchouts on the day. The lone run he allowed, however, also came off the curve, as Melky Cabrera lifted one for an RBI single in the first inning to get the Pirates on the board.

“I think Smyly had a good curveball going,” Pirates first baseman Josh Bell said. “It’s something that I haven’t really seen -- none of the guys have seen.”

When Andrew Knapp caught a bullpen session for Smyly before the game, he thought the lefty’s curveball was “the strangest curveball I’ve ever caught.” Both Kapler and Knapp agree it takes a screwball-type motion, appearing to go toward the back foot of righties, but stopping as it reaches the zone.

“He told me it was a curveball, but then I didn’t know if it was a bad one or a good one,” Knapp said. “I said, ‘Did that back up or is that the way it goes?’ He said, ‘No, that’s always how it is.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s a good pitch.’”

“That’s always been one of my best pitches,” Smyly said. “I’ve kind of lived off the curveball in the past -- maybe a little too much -- but that’s always been one of my go-to’s.”

But in a quieter way, Smyly cruised against the Pirates thanks to effective fastballs. Opponents had slugged .739 off his four-seamer during his tenure with the Rangers to begin the year, yet he allowed just a single to Starling Marte with the pitch Sunday -- and that turned into an eventual out on the basepaths in the sixth inning.

“He’s got a fastball that really carries,” Kapler said. “It’s not a fastball that’s 96 [mph], but it can generate swings and misses. And if he can locate his secondary pitches well, you’re going to see more swings and misses.”

Smyly and pitching coach Chris Young also devised a way to attack a balls-in-play-oriented Pirates lineup with the cutter, which Kapler said wasn’t “especially successful in Texas,” but which had been tweaked in the Minors with the Brewers.

“Good cutter-curveball combo,” Bell said of Smyly. “You’ve just got to give kudos to him, kind of tip your cap.”

The circumstances around his debut start weren’t necessarily ideal. Smyly had some work to do to make the signing official, traveling while keeping a low profile as the process was worked out. He was immediately thrown into the mix after the signing became official Sunday, only to have a rain delay crop up in the fourth inning. Smyly ultimately took a no-decision, but the Phillies were victorious in his first start thanks to an 11th-inning homer by Rhys Hoskins.

But of all things, Smyly said his short Minor League stint this year prepared him for this kind of all-over-the-place feeling.

“I was kind of flying back and forth a lot and working on things in between starts,” he said. “I’ve been traveling quite a bit since I got designated [for assignment] by Texas. So it’s just part of it, part of the game.”

That period was also when Smyly began the groundwork to refocus himself and work toward returning as a Major League starter as soon as possible. Other clubs showed interest in Smyly, but the Phillies were ready to give him the rotation spot he still sought.

“I really started to figure out some things about myself -- a new game plan, a new approach on how to attack hitters -- and I instantly saw results,” Smyly said of his time in the Minors. “I think it’s only going to get better. I’m a different pitcher than I was with Texas right now.”

“That was an excellent opening performance for us,” Kapler said. “It gives us a lot of hope for what comes next for him.”