Will and ‘The Ted’s’ Excellent Adventure
by Chris Goltermann
There was a point in Will Smith's youth baseball career that he and his mom, Kay, took an almost daily drive past Turner Field on their way to the East Cobb Baseball Complex.
Passing the stadium almost always fueled dreams of pitching in the major leagues, and pitching close to home.
On Monday, though, those dreams will become a reality when Smith's Milwaukee Brewers head to Turner Field for a four-game series with the Atlanta Braves.
It's the Newnan native's first trip back home since making his majorleague debut two years ago as a 22-year-old rookie starting pitcher with the Kansas City Royals.
'We used to drive up 85 past Turner Field and I'd tell my mom, 'I'm going to play in that stadium some day.' It was more of a joke back then,' he said following Friday's win over the Cubs. 'It's exciting to finally get a chance play in Atlanta. It's definitely a good feeling.'
As talented as their son was through success as an ace at Northgate High before being a seventh-round pick of the then-Anaheim Angels in 2008, making the major leagues was something that Charles and Kay Smith thought was a far reach at best.
'When he was little you're not really thinking my son is going to make it to the major leagues,' Kay said. 'You're never really quite sure. It's still nerve racking, especially when listening on the radio. I get worried that he might have a bad day.'
The couple, along with daughter Charlise and son-in-law David, were all in New York to see Smith's major league debut in Yankee Stadium.
'I remember they had this huge spread before the game, but I couldn't eat,' Kay said.
Out of 23 appearances, only one has even approached the term 'bad' so far.
The 6-foot-5 left-handed reliever who spent the past two years bouncing between the Kansas City Royals and Triple-A Omaha isn't leaving the majors anytime soon, even if he continues to maintain that 'every day in the big leagues is a gift,' he said.
Since joining the Brewers' bullpen in an offseason trade, Smith has become a dominant set-up man in Milwaukee's surge to first-place in the N.L. Central. His numbers - following his 11th hold of the season on Friday in Chicago - are more than major-league worthy.
They also include his first career MLB save and a 0.44 ERA to go with 30 strikeouts. During his first 20 1/3 innings of 2014, the soon-tobe 25-year-old has allowed just one earned run in his first 23 appearances.
Entering Saturday, Smith's 11 holds also leads the majors.
'The confidence just comes with more and more days up here,' he said. 'I'm still only 24. I know I can't take anything for granted.'
If the season were to end today, the Brewers would have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
'It's still just a small sample of the season. We just have to keep doing things right,' Smith said. 'Right now we're getting batters out, we're getting runners over, we're getting twoout hits. Our starting five [pitchers] have made for some quiet nights for us.' Smith admits that there's been an ease in the clubhouse, especially in the bullpen, where a mix of veterans and newcomers has jelled. The group goes out to dinner at least once on every road trip, and thanks to inspiration from Taiwanese reliever Wei-Chung Wang the bullpen has created 'Wei-Chung Wednesday' videos where they do a unique dance to '80s band Wang Chung's 'Everybody Have Fun Tonight.'
'We're definitely having fun out there. It's a good mix of guys,' Smith. 'Guys like [Kyle] Lohse and [Matt] Garza, they've been very approachable. We cut up a lot. But we know when that fifth inning arrives, there's no more horsing around out there and it's time to get to work.'
Smith, who now wears No. 13, picked up his first career save without knowing it against the Pirates on April 13 after coming on to earn the final out in the ninth inning in relief of Lohse.
'I'm just thinking I'm coming into a 4-1 game with a runner on first. I had no idea,' Smith said. 'After the game everybody was coming up to me and saying 'Congrats.' That's when I realized when they gave me the lineup card that night that I had saved my first game.'
Pitching out of the bullpen has been as much getting out of one routine as it has been an adjustment to another.
'It's all about how you manage things. If I've pitched the previous day, I might do an upper-body workout. It's never the same,' he said. 'But there's something to be said about coming out there every night and having a chance to pitch. It used to be when I wasn't pitching, I'd just be sitting in the dugout.'
It's still been less than a full season since Smith made the transition from a career starter to the bullpen. It had Smith making seven trips between the minors and Kansas City, finishing the year with a 2-1 record and a 3.24 ERA in 19 appearances with the Royals.
His one start came early in the 2013 season in Cleveland in a game attended by his former varsity head coach, Greg Hamilton of Northgate.
'That meant a lot to me,' Smith said. 'Having him come see me pitch in the major leagues is something I'll never forget. Unfortunately, I didn't have such a great start.'
Along with Hamilton, more than a few folks from Coweta County are planning to make the drive up I-85 to 'The Ted' for this week's series.
Smith has been allotted 341 tickets, turning Section 405 of the upper-deck into 'Smith Station.'
'He's got some cousins and some aunts coming,' Kay said. 'We're still not sure where we'll be. A friend of his who pitches with the Rockies has helped get some extra tickets.'
'They'll be a few people,' he joked, adding, 'if I have a bad game, I might have to have them kick Coach Hamilton out.'
Watching their son grow up a Braves fan just outside Atlanta, Kay Smith remember those rides to East Cobb and listening to her son dream about taking the mound at Turner Field.
'Every time,' he said. 'One Christmas we bought a picture of the stadium that was blown up and we framed it for him. It's on his wall here at home.'