Braves’ Will Smith has learned a lot through long career as reliever

PHILADELPHIA — On June 23 versus the Giants, Braves reliever Will Smith took the mound to protect a three-run lead at Truist Park. With one out, Smith felt he had a chance to punch out Austin Slater with an up-and-away fastball, but Slater hit a run-scoring single into right field.

“I guess younger Will would’ve been like, ‘What the hell, man? How can you give up that run? We’re going to lose the game now,’” Smith said recently. “And it’s not like that.”

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Nowadays, Smith is better at viewing the bigger picture. In this case, the Braves still had a two-run lead after that run scored. They needed only five more outs to win the game. They would soon hand the ball to closer Kenley Jansen.

One run is not the end of the world, even if relievers may be the most scrutinized players on any baseball team.

Two days after that outing, Smith faced Freddie Freeman of the Dodgers with the bases loaded in a crucial spot in the seventh inning. Protecting a one-run lead, Smith fanned Freeman to end the inning.

This is the life of a reliever. It can go both ways. It is a difficult job.

Smith spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution hours before striking out Freeman. And that came a couple of days before the Braves placed Jansen on the injured list with an irregular heartbeat. The Braves will be relying on Smith more with Jansen down.

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Smith, who entered Wednesday with a 3.41 ERA, has two saves this season and 88 over his career. The left-hander, who turns 33 on July 10, has picked up tons of knowledge since debuting in 2012. Some of that is what he calls “the game inside the game” – reading swings and body language, moving hitters’ feet and more.

“Hitters, I think, will tell you a lot of stuff,” Smith said. “If they’re taking deep breaths or by the swings they take sometimes. And you might be wrong. I think as long as you’re trusting your gut, you can sleep at night. There’s nothing worse than second-guessing yourself all night. But if you believe in the pitch and you have the conviction behind it and you think you’ve read the hitter the way you’ve read him, and he gets you, then so be it, he got me.

“We genuinely care for each other down there. We have baseball conversations, we hang out after games and talk. We just use each other as learning tools all the time, and I think that's why we're successful."

- Braves reliever Will Smith, on his bullpen mates

“But when you do get him, it shoots your confidence up that much higher that you’re starting to read swings, you’re starting to read foul balls and all that stuff.”

Smith doesn’t believe relievers should care about their ERAs. Those marks fluctuate too much in their roles simply because they don’t log the innings a starting pitcher does.

Smith, the Braves’ former full-time closer, cares about one thing.

“All Will wants to do is win,” manager Brian Snitker said. “When we got Kenley and we talked to Will, he was like, ‘You guys are crazy to not get Kenley because I’ll pitch anywhere.’ He said, ‘I had so much fun winning last year, I want to do it again.’

“He just wants to help win. He doesn’t care where it’s at.”

With Jansen out, the Braves will rely on Smith and A.J. Minter to close games. Minter earned the save Tuesday, but it could be Smith on other nights. The Braves’ bullpen, which has excelled this season, features versatility, even if Jansen and Tyler Matzek are out with injuries.

“We genuinely care for each other down there,” Smith said. “We have baseball conversations, we hang out after games and talk. We just use each other as learning tools all the time, and I think that’s why we’re successful.”

When he was younger, Smith said it used to anger him when he would allow a run. He now understands that the role is simply about giving the club a chance to win.

As a young reliever years ago, Smith said Francisco Rodriguez and Jonathan Broxton helped him. Now he’s that veteran presence who is able to aid the Braves’ young bullpen pitchers, from Spencer Strider (when he was a reliever) to Dylan Lee to Jackson Stephens.

His best advice to them?

“Just try hard, man,” Smith said. “It’s a tough job being a reliever because you’re either the hero or the zero down there. You’re either going to give it up or you’re going to do your job, and nobody really cares.”

An update on Acuña

Ronald Acuña on Wednesday missed his third consecutive game with a bruised left foot. He is not with the team in Philadelphia, but Snitker said he expects Acuña to join the Braves here Thursday.

The Braves don’t yet know if Acuña will play Thursday. That said, Acuña is said to have reported feeling much better Wednesday.

“He’s taking significant strides forward,” Snitker said.

This is Acuña’s third nagging injury of the season. It occurred in an unlucky way, as he fouled a ball off the top of his foot.

Now the Braves are waiting to get him back.

“I think it was going to be a matter of time before he could get on (his foot), put weight (on it), things like that,” Snitker said. “It’s a bruise, it just takes a while. … They wanted to leave him there (in Atlanta) and concentrate on treatment and everything.”

Harris has produced versus lefties

The left-handed hitting Michael Harris was in Wednesday’s lineup versus Phillies lefty Ranger Suarez.

When the Braves called up Harris, they could have perhaps sat him versus some lefties. Thus far, that hasn’t happened.

“That was kind of the talk, and then it’s like you don’t want to because it’s such a force in the outfield,” Snitker said. “And all of the sudden, you get a hit here, a hit there against lefties.”

Harris has been in the bigs only since the end of May. The sample size is small. But it is encouraging thus far.

Harris versus lefties: A .333, batting average and an .856 OPS over 33 at-bats.

Harris versus righties: A .324 batting average and an .869 OPS over 74 at-bats.

Wednesday marks the 30th game of Harris’ big-league career. He has hit ninth in all 30. Snitker recently said he likes the rookie in that spot, even if Harris is batting .327 with an .865 OPS, three homers and 14 RBIs a month into his career.

“I think it’s good in a DH lineup to have a guy like that, that can run, and now he’s getting on base for the top half of that lineup,” Snitker said. “That can be a big spot, a very productive spot, too, in that lineup.”

Matzek’s rehab assignment moved

Instead of starting a rehab assignment with Single-A Augusta, Matzek has been moved to Triple-A Gwinnett. Augusta on Tuesday was rained out.

This shouldn’t change much.

“It doesn’t matter,” Snitker said. “If he pitches in Augusta or Gwinnett, it’s not a big deal.”

Matzek on Wednesday struck out two batters in a scoreless inning.