Where There's a Will, there's a way
Former Northgate High ace makes transition
by Chris Goltermann
By now, Will Smith could probably recite the preflight safety instruction speech by heart, seat-belt demonstration included.
But a final trip home to Newnan following the 2013 baseball season may have been even that more satisfying than just racking up frequent flyer miles between the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers and the Kansas City Royals.
Making his own transition from a starter to the bullpen this year on the mound, the 6-foot-5 left-hander who once frustrated opposing batters at Northgate High, found himself caught between a surging Storm Chasers team on their way to both Pacific League and a Triple-A national championship and the Royals’ resurgence while in the hunt for an American League Wild Card berth.
Omaha’s staff included hitting coach and former Atlanta Brave Tommy Gregg, who is a Newnan resident.
Despite not quite getting a chance to taste champagne with the Storm Chasers, Smith wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I kept up with my teammates in Omaha and you’re happy for them, but I can’t really complain about it,” Smith said. “Especially when you’re playing in the major leagues is your goal all along.”
It made for both an exciting and exhausting second year in the major leagues that included seven callups between April and late August, the latter through the end of the regular season in Kansas City, where the Royals finished 5 ½ games behind Tampa Bay with 86 victories, the most by the franchise since 1989.
“Going up and down seven times with the travel can be tough,” Smith said, who at one point took four flights starting in Omaha in one day to catch up with the Royals while they were in Boston, only to get stuck in the hotel elevator around 2 a.m. on the way up to his room. “I was so tired, I could have slept there.”
In his first year as a reliever, though, Smith became part of one of the best bullpens in the American League and a trusted left-hander one season after an up-and-down rookie campaign as a starter.
Smith was an important part of both teams’ efforts, finding his groove in the major leagues with a solid 2-1 record and 3.24 ERA in 19 appearances with Kansas City. It included a spot-start during a doubleheader against Cleveland on April 28 where he gave up four earned runs in a four-inning appearance before immediately returning to Omaha.
But by the time he returned to the Royals on June 25 for a game against his hometown Atlanta Braves, however, Smith was settling into his new surroundings after making a transition to the bullpen with the Storm Chasers. It came on a directive from Kansas City after the Royals added three starting pitchers to the rotation in the offseason and were in need of adding another left-hander to the bullpen.
“The hardest part was getting used to the routine,” Smith said. “I used to throw 30 minutes to get warm. Now you have just eight pitches to get ready.”
Once accustomed to waiting five days in between starts as he did during 16 appearances as a rookie in 2012 while finishing with a 6-9 record and a 5.32 ERA, the 23-year-old slowly adjusted to new workouts and conditioning drills.
Smith accepted as much advice as he could, crediting bullpen coach Doug Henry, who worked as Omaha’s pitching coach prior to joining Kansas City, as well as veterans Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar, both of whom began career s as starters. The 36-year-old Chen, who debuted with the Braves as a rookie in 1998 among the first of 10 major-league uniforms he’s worn, told Smith specifically to stay patient in his early years and not let mistakes become a distraction. “Don’t try to be a hero,” he said of the advice. “He said you’re still young. You have a lot to look forward to.”
Despite just six appearances with the Royals between April and early July, Smith hit a groove down the stretch, posting a 1.23 ERA in August and making eight appearances in September starting with a 4-plus inning appearance in a comeback effort over Seattle that led to his second win of the year. His fastball was clocked in at 95 mph in the final month, with manager Ned Yost remarking to Jeffrey Flanagan of FoxSports.com, “He's just been phenomenal out there. A big boost for us."
Smith’s control in relief, though, was equally outstanding, walking just seven batters in 29 1/3 innings and striking out 38 over the span. At least five of his eight runs allowed came on homers, with opponents otherwise hitting a paltry .202 when facing him.
It’s equally been enjoyable playing for Yost, a former major league catcher in the 1980s who coached with the Braves from 1991-2002.
“I’ve liked playing for him,” Smith said. “He’s a former catcher, so he’s got a good understanding of what pitchers go through. He’s kind of a Southern guy, likes hunting.”
Yost recently received a two-year contract extension through 2015, though the Royals still have to make some decisions regarding impending free agents on the pitching staff. They include both Chen and starter Ervin Santana. That could have Kansas City looking again at Smith when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in early February.
But Smith, who spent his first week home to see friends and family here in Newnan, turned any such thoughts aside while preparing to begin offseason workouts shortly.
“That’s something I can’t control,” he said. “I just have to keep doing what I’ve been doing. As long as I’m in the big leagues.”