Will Smith clears COVID-19 protocol, begins path to return

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

The Braves’ prized bullpen acquisition will rejoin the team soon.

Left-hander Will Smith was cleared from COVID-19 protocols and threw at Truist Park on Sunday, manager Brian Snitker said. Smith tested positive before summer camp, missing the Braves’ build-up period and start of regular season. Smith was asymptomatic.

“He got cleared, so he’s starting his ascent,” Snitker said. “He played catch and he’ll do some flat grounds, get on the mound probably the first of the week. Now it’s just a matter of time, getting him back. We’ll have him throw some (simulated) games, live batting practices in Gwinnett (at the alternate site). Just build his arm up.”

Snitker hopes Smith can return by Aug. 7, when the Braves begin their next road trip. In other words, he could return sometime during the team’s upcoming nine-game homestand, which runs July 29 through Aug. 6.

While it’s difficult to project how much time a player could need, Snitker pointed out how quickly right-hander Touki Toussaint returned from his COVID-related absence. Toussaint returned last weekend, appeared in intrasquad and exhibition games and made the opening-day roster.

Like Toussaint, Smith has been throwing while quarantined. That doesn’t necessarily mean he can return as quickly, but given Smith is a one-inning pitcher, the Braves are optimistic his build-up process won’t require much time.

Smith’s return will fortify the bullpen. An All-Star last season, he had a 2.76 ERA with 96 strikeouts against 21 walks. Smith saved a career-high 34 games for a struggling Giants team.

The Braves, seeking bullpen upgrades, signed the Atlanta native to a three-year deal worth $39 million with a $13 million club option for 2023. It was a large commitment for a reliever, but the Braves felt Smith could be one of the players to push them over the hump.

“We were counting on him and still will,” Snitker said. “It’s going to lengthen our bullpen. It’ll be big for us. He’s a clean-inning guy. He’s not a match-up guy. He’s somebody, like if a situation happens like (Saturday), you have another closer down there, which is good. We’ll have three or four guys down there who can close games.”

Other notes from Sunday:

- Catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Tyler Flowers still weren’t feeling well on Sunday morning. Both players have tested negative for the coronavirus but remain in Atlanta. Alex Jackson and William Contreras will likely continue handling catching duties during the team’s two-game series in St. Petersburg, which begins Monday.

- The Braves’ offense looked lifeless through 17-2/3 innings before Marcell Ozuna’s game-tying homer Saturday. The Braves had one run on the season – an Adam Duvall home run – and struck out 25 times. Their illustrious top-three hitters in Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman combined for one hit.

Ozuna’s solo shot might’ve been their adrenaline shot. The Braves scored three in the 10th, leading to their first win of the season.

The first of those runs was provided by shortstop Dansby Swanson, who became the first player in MLB history to begin an inning with an RBI single. That was made possible by the new extra-innings rule, which places a runner at second to begin every additional frame.

“We were facing two guys throwing the heck out of it in (Jacob) deGrom and (Steven) Matz,” Swanson said regarding their offense. “It’s always nice to get the first one, but also – we talked about it in the past, hitting is contagious. Ozuna being able to spark us there, then getting some hits there in the 10th inning, did a lot for us. You could tell the confidence was growing in the locker room after the game (Saturday).”

- Speaking with reporters Sunday, Swanson praised the Braves’ pitching thus far. Despite the quiet bats, pitching – and specifically, starters Mike Soroka and Max Fried – has given the Braves a chance in both games.

“Pitching has been tremendous,” Swanson said. “Starters, bullpen, everybody. Soroka was great in game one, the guys who came after him. It was just one pitch that got us beat. I thought Max threw really well. Just two pitches pretty much for him that led to a couple runs. They’ve been tremendous. The game planning, execution has been great.

“One thing I love about our guys, when things aren’t exactly going their way, there are adjustments made and they don’t seem to get rattled by the situation. The defense we’ve played has been tremendous as well. That’s what it’s going to take for us to get where we want to get to in the grand scheme of things. It takes every phase of the game. We have the ability to do that.”

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