Braves stick with Will Smith thrill ride, so buckle up

Braves relief pitcher Will Smith (51) celebrates after holding off the Giants Friday night. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Braves relief pitcher Will Smith (51) celebrates after holding off the Giants Friday night. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

After eight innings of hard work invested in a slim lead, the bullpen gate swings open. Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” plays overhead. Will Smith, a large man with a large job, emerges. Let the agita begin.

Braves fans feel their stomachs knot and their dark nihilism rise. Players up and down the roster inevitably take turns provoking this kind of response. But no one brings the gastric juices to a hard simmer more often than those whose task it is to nail down the final three outs of a game. That’s where the Braves closer lives now.

The numbers all say Smith is better than most at this job. He’s tied for fourth in MLB in saves (28). Baseball’s saves leader is one the Braves let get away, Mark Melancon in San Diego, with 32. But with five blown saves to Smith’s four, Melancon’s save percentage is just a tick worse (87.2 to 87.5). And Smith has demonstrably better put-away stuff than Melancon, with the significantly higher strikeout-per-nine-inning number – 11.4 to 7.9.

Compare Smith with another hot closer coming to town this weekend, San Francisco’s Jake McGee, he of 29 saves. He, too, is an imperfect human, with four blown saves. Although he’ll bury Smith in such other stats as ERA (2.63 to Smith’s 3.74) and walks and hits per innings pitched (0.86 to 1.19).

But enough numbers. Wait one more. Did we mention that Smith has given up a distressing number of home runs – eight in 53 innings? Nothing like yielding a ninth-inning home run to wilt the soul and fertilize the seeds of doubt.

Beyond analytics, what’s so troubling is that there has been nothing neat and clean about Smith’s work lately. There always seems to be traffic when he’s driving (in a dozen August appearances, only two without at least one base hit or walk). And the question arises, can the Braves depend on him going forward through September and, yes, October to lock down the most meaningful of games against the toughest of foes? Can our angry blood take another two months?

Braves manager Brian Snitker has been consistent in standing by his closer.

After Smith blew a lead against Washington on Aug. 7, giving up three runs: “It happens to every closer,” Snitker said.

After giving up a game-tying two-run homer to Cincinnati’s Joey Votto four days later: “I liked his stuff today, a lot. ... That’s a pretty good hitter that he gave that home run up to. That’s going to happen, too.”

After back-to-back appearances last weekend in which Smith gave up leadoff extra-base hits to gawd-awful Baltimore, one a homer: “Will has been great. He’s getting the job done as long as he walks off that mound with a save. They are going to give it up every now and then; it’s just the nature of that job. I mean, it’s hard to be perfect, and he’s done a great job. Look at his (save) percentage and all that; it’s as good as anybody out there.”

There, feel better? With Snitker, you never know how much he says is to provide perspective and how much to give protection to his guys. A lot of both in this case.

Granted, the care and feeding of a closer is a delicate art. They can turn sour quicker than buttermilk. See the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman in the ninth Tuesday in Atlanta, a fountain of sweat, seemingly melting like an ice sculpture in a kiln, giving up a pair of singles and two walks – one bases loaded – before being mercifully lifted with Freddie Freeman up. Once the most feared of closers, still capable of shorting out radar guns with his velocity, Chapman is in Yankee limbo now.

Still, here is a manager in Snitker who will juggle a batting order like a San Francisco street performer, and yet is loathe to rearrange bullpen roles. There are other options. Tyler Matzek hasn’t given up a run since the Reagan administration (actually his past 19 appearances). Acquired at the deadline, Richard Rodriguez has closing experience.

There is no telling how anyone else might react in the highest leverage inning. Someone comfortable in the seventh could be a puddle of goo in the ninth. It often is just easier to dance with the closer you know.

The show gets a little tiresome – Smith sliding into a straight jacket and chains to begin the ninth and then going for the great escape. By all signs there’s more of the same to come. So, settle in. And pass the Maalox.