Mallex Smith won’t be a lineup regular the rest of the season, but the dynamic rookie outfielder was nonetheless thrilled to be back in uniform with the Braves on Friday for the first time since his left thumb was broken by a pitch nearly three months ago.
“I’m excited to be back,” said Smith, 23, smiling just as he was even the June 19 game at New York when Antonio Bastardo hit him with a fastball that fractured his thumb, just when Smith was beginning to assert himself offensively while sharing time in left field with Jeff Francoeur. “This is still a blessing, no matter what happens.”
Smith hit .237 with 14 stolen bases and a .691 OPS in 58 games before and had a .350 OBP, four triples, two homers and eight stolen bases in his last 31 games before going on the disabled list. He had shifted to left field with ease when Snitker, who took over May 19, decided to make Ender Inciarte the every-day center fielder.
Then, a fastball in and Smith’s season and development was abruptly halted. Still, he took it in stride then and now.
“Things happen,” he said. “This is life. Everything’s not going to be peaches and cream, so there’s no need to be sad. You just take the good with the bad as they come.”
He missed 10 weeks while the thumb healed before starting a rehab stint Sept. 1 with Double-A Mississippi. Smith went 7-for-16 with a triple in five regular-season games for Mississippi, then 7-for-30 in the playoffs before the Double-A team lost in the Southern League championship series that ended Thursday.
Reinstated Friday from the 60-day disabled list, he was activated for the series opener against the Marlins, but not in the lineup. With the Braves outfield trio of veteran left fielder Matt Kemp and veteran right fielder Nick Markakis flanking Inciarte and all three wielding hot bats since Kemp’s arrival Aug. 2, interim manager Brian Snitker said Smith would used primarily as a pinch-hitter and pinch-runner the rest of the season.
“It’s just good to have another piece, because we’ve been kind of running bare-bones a little bit,” Snitker said. “Pinch hit, pinch run. It’s just another option late in the game, if we need to double-switch or something like that. But there’s been a few times I know that would have been good to have him to pinch run or pinch hit. That where we’re at right now with it.”
Asked if he thought Smith would get a start or two, Snitker said, “We’ll just have to wait and see. I’d like to. But these guys, you’ve got to fight them to get them to take a day (off). These three guys want to play every day. They’re gamers, they want to play. And I want them to play. Those three outfielders are huge part of what we’re doing here.”
If you’re expecting Smith to be upset or frustrated by that, forget it. It’s not in his nature. He’s as upbeat as they come, and said that just getting back to play as much as he has so far in September with Mississippi was big for him.
He wanted to know before the offseason that his thumb was fine and that if he swung and missed or got jammed with a pitch, he’d be fine. He said those tests were passed at Mississippi.
“It was extremely important for me,” he said of playing again before the season ended. “I wanted to be comfortable knowing my hand was OK. Just knowing that I can do whatever I want with it, I don’t have to be cautious. I can play the game how I need to play it without worrying if my hand’s going to be alright.
“So it was definitely comforting to go through these games with no pain, no physical setbacks.”
Joining Mississippi for its playoff drive and two postseason series was an added bonus, he said.
“Oh, definitely,” he said. “We were playing to win. That’s what you sign up for, no matter where you’re at. So I enjoyed myself, I enjoyed my company with the team…. If anything, I was nervous because I hadn’t played and I wanted to help the team win. I didn’t just want to be there on a rehab assignment not helping.”
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