Will Smith picked up a lot in his two-plus seasons with Milwaukee (2014 through the early part of 2016). He returns there a much wiser man Friday, Oct. 8, as his Braves mix it up with the Brewers in the first game of their National League Division Series.
And not just about beer, but more so about bearing. Back then, setting up games for renowned closer Francisco Rodriguez, aka K-Rod, Smith watched how even the best had to know how to swallow failure.
“I learned a ton from him,” Smith recalled Wednesday, Oct. 5, as the Braves went through a last light workout at home before departing for Milwaukee. “I’d watch K-Rod blow one in Milwaukee — he was my locker mate — and he’d sit there and I’m wondering is this guy going to explode; what’s going to happen?
“Then, he would stand up and say, ‘Well, there’s no need for me to be here anymore,’ and he’d shower and leave. He’d show up the next day the same ol’ Frankie. You’d never know he had blown a 3-run lead.”
As the Braves closer now, one who often has walked the wire without a net and regularly brought fans’ gastric acids to a boil on the way to 37 saves — and six blown saves — Smith has leaned heavily on that old lesson. Will the Thrill has had himself one interesting year, from being prone to giving up the dispiriting long ball (yielding 11 home runs in 68 innings) to nailing down the Braves’ fourth consecutive division title in grand fashion (mowing through Philadelphia a week ago, striking out two, getting the last three outs on eight pitches).
It has taken him considerable time, he said, to learn how to process the wild swings of fortune that come with the closer’s role. Toward this end, he uses helpful, and hygienic, imagery.
Smith explains: “If you have a good (outing), after you take a shower, it goes down the drain. There’s nothing else you can do about it. Same if you have a bad one. You can sit in the locker and be as mad as you want, but when it’s time to go shower, you have to wash it off you. It goes down the drain; you can’t get it back. Then show up the next day and go to work.”
Also while passing through the Milwaukee system, Smith gained even more appreciation for cheese. Throwing it, not eating it.
Sent to Double-A Biloxi on a rehab assignment after injuring his knee, Smith was told to keep an eye on this one young left-hander whose arm was especially blessed. This was his first exposure to Josh Hader. The kid made an impression.
“I’m a big fan of Hader. I like Hader a lot,” Smith said of the guy who’s now Milwaukee’s closer.
While the two don’t share hairstyles — Smith is all about the close-crop while Hader lets his spill from beneath his cap like an undammed river — the two seem to share interests beyond getting the 27th out. Good-naturedly calling Hader a fellow redneck who likes to fish and hunt, Smith considers him a buddy. Beyond that, their wives became friends.
“I wouldn’t say I’ll be pulling for him,” Smith said with a smile, “but during the regular season I like to see Josh have success.”
One of the big potential matchups of this series appears at the back end of both bullpens. In Hader, the Brewers have the definition of the dominant fastball/slider closer.
“He’s a rough ride, I’ll tell you. He’s been the best in the business this year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.
And with the loss of their set-up guy — Devin Williams broke his hand punching a wall after the Brewers clinched — Milwaukee likely will put even more on Hader.
“I fully expect to see him work multiple innings,” Snitker said.
While more often than not Smith may get the job done, any side-by-side comparison of numbers gives the Brewers a clear advantage at closer. While working about 10 fewer innings than Smith, Hader has much the better ERA (1.23 to Smith’s 3.44), WHIP (0.84 to 1.13), strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.2-to-1 to 3.1-to-1) and batting average against (.127 to .198). Hader has given up only three homers this season and blown only a single save.
Oddly enough, neither has a postseason save.
“I’ll take as many as I can,” Smith said. “I haven’t thought about that. It will be exciting for sure.”
An already high-stress role becomes all the more demanding in the postseason, when a season comes down, in the case of this series, to at most five games rather than 162. That would make each pitch at least, what, 32 times more important.
Snitker, who has been uncompromising in his defense of Smith all year, was once more solidly behind him Wednesday. “For Will, there is no situation too big for him. That guy’s got guts and moxie and all that,” the manager said, channeling his inner Dashiell Hammett.
And Smith, who has learned much in his time, intends to put it all to use this postseason. You can recite whatever numbers you please, but know this is the mind-set he intends to take the mound:
“My 15 minutes I’m out there, I take real seriously,” Smith said. “That’s how I was taught. I don’t think I’m the best reliever in baseball. But when my 15 minutes are out there, I believe I am the best in baseball.”
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