Will Smith begins second season with Braves better than his first

Under the watchful eyes of Braves manager Brian Snitker (background, left) and bullpen coach Marty Reed (background, right) new reliever Will Smith works from the mound during the first workout at CoolToday Park  Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in North Port, Fla.
Under the watchful eyes of Braves manager Brian Snitker (background, left) and bullpen coach Marty Reed (background, right) new reliever Will Smith works from the mound during the first workout at CoolToday Park Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in North Port, Fla.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Will Smith is set for a more normal spring training, something he won’t take for granted.

Smith, the Braves’ high-priced free-agent acquisition last winter, had an underwhelming debut season for his hometown team. As the reliever put it Saturday: “I didn’t think I was very good last year.”

It started in July. When MLB returned for summer camp, the ramp-up period to the 60-game 2020 season, Smith was among the Braves’ early absences. He tested positive for the coronavirus, and while he was asymptomatic, it kept him away from the team for more than a month.

Smith tested positive before the team’s first workout July 3. He was cleared July 26 and officially rejoined the team Aug. 6. Smith, an All-Star for the Giants the season before, posted a 4.50 ERA in 16 innings. Oddly, seven of the 11 hits he surrendered were homers.

“He got so far behind, I think,” manager Brian Snitker said. “He missed pretty much all the second camp. As we’ve seen before … these guys need that ramp-up time. You saw Will, he got going and was really, really good. That slider is a big pitch for him. I remember talking to him, too, ‘You’re throwing the ball really well. You’re not getting results sometimes that you want,’ but you could see it coming the more we got him out there. But he was playing catch up most of the time.”

Smith was indeed more effective later in the season, largely because he regained a feel for his slider. He allowed one run (a homer, of course) over his final seven regular-season appearances (5-1/3 innings).

“I wanted to prove myself, show these guys what I can do,” Smith said. “Maybe coming back from COVID, I was trying too hard too soon. I fell into that trap. But once I relaxed and calmed down, I was getting outs.”

Smith also logged five consecutive scoreless outings in the postseason before the Dodgers tagged him for three runs across his final two appearances – which included the matchup of Will Smith vs. Will Smith, won by the Dodgers’ Smith with a homer.

It ended Smith’s year on a sour note, but the southpaw arrived at Braves camp feeling refreshed. He’s in a good place mentally and physically, and he’s beginning the spring on a normal routine.

“I was definitely banking on summer camp, for sure,” Smith said, reflecting on the 2020 season. “I got COVID and had to sit out. It was tough to play catch in the backyard. That’s really all I had, all I could do. I’m really looking forward to having a full spring training this year.”

The Braves are going to need Smith’s best. Gone is Mark Melancon, last season’s closer, to San Diego. Veteran Darren O’Day departed for the Yankees. Former All-Star Shane Greene, another important cog in the 2020 bullpen, remains a free agent.

The Braves haven’t named a primary closer. It will be a group effort, as it stands early in camp, led by Smith, Chris Martin and A.J. Minter. Smith, to whom the team guaranteed $40 million over three seasons, reiterated he doesn’t care which inning he covers. His thoughts reflect the selfless nature in the Braves’ clubhouse.

“If we win, and I throw in the seventh or eighth inning, I don’t care,” he said. “Whoever gets those last three outs, let’s do it, man. We’re trying to win as many games as possible. I think if you check your ego at the door every day, and go get your three outs, you’ll have a successful bullpen.”

In Other News