Mariners Magazine | Carson Smith Gaining Experience

In his first full season in the Majors, reliever Carson Smith has pretty much handled everything thrown his way.

By Kirby Arnold

Smith_01_RESIZE


The following article is from the September issue of Mariners Magazine. Pick up yours today at any Mariners Team Store, or subscribe to receive all six issues (April-September), plus a free 2015 Mariners Yearbook, delivered to your home or office. Each issue is filled with great action photography, up to date news, player stats and feature interviews.


It’s the ninth inning, the Mariners have a one-run lead and Carson Smith steps to the mound knowing what’s at stake. One bad pitch, or one good swing on a good pitch, or one unlucky bounce can unravel everything his team has worked to accomplish the previous eight innings.

Bring on the responsibility, Smith says. It’s the pressure-filled world as he lives it – and loves it – as the Mariners rookie closer.

Smith simplifies the situation, believes in himself and knows that the joy of a game won, or the anguish if it gets away, will last only as long as it takes to prepare for the next day.

“I’ve just got to stay focused on what I can control,” said the 25-year-old from Dallas. “You can’t control a lot of things in this game. After the ball leaves your hand, there’s nothing you can do about it. I just focus on what I can do when they put the ball in my hand. And that’s delivering quality pitches, hoping to get ground balls and if I get two strikes, hoping to put the hitter away. That’s my outlook.”

“I know that no day is guaranteed here. Anybody who takes a day for granted here is mistaken.”

– Carson Smith

“I’ve just got to stay focused on what I can control,” said the 25-year-old from Dallas. “You can’t control a lot of things in this game. After the ball leaves your hand, there’s nothing you can do about it. I just focus on what I can do when they put the ball in my hand. And that’s delivering quality pitches, hoping to get ground balls and if I get two strikes, hoping to put the hitter away. That’s my outlook.”

Carson Smith has appeared in a team-high 64 games this season.

Carson Smith has appeared in a team-high 64 games this season.

Shifting Roles

It’s an approach, along with the fastball, slider and sinker that can be wicked to hitters, that worked well when the Mariners turned to Smith as their closer in June.

He converted nine straight save opportunities from June 6-July 24, three of them while protecting one-run leads and two others with the Mariners leading by two runs. They’re high-leverage moments that can clutter a young pitcher’s mind, but Smith keeps his as clear as his approach.

“I try not to get overwhelmed by the intensity of the situation,” he said. “If anything, I try to feed off it.  The good relievers can really feed off pressure-packed situations. I’m young in this game and hopefully I can continue to feed off the energy of the crowd and the situation.”

Smith recorded 40 saves in his three minor league seasons, and he pitched in nine games for the Mariners last September after they gave him a first taste of the Major Leagues.

“I’m not going to say it was easy by any means,” he said. “Playing in front of 30,000 in Oakland in my debut, the nerves were going.”

He threw two pitches in that game on Sept. 1, getting Josh Donaldson to ground out. It became the launching point for an impressive month, when Smith allowed two hits and struck out 10 in 8¹⁄³ scoreless innings.

Smith started this season spectacularly, helping secure the Mariners 4-1 season-opening victory over the Angels by striking out Mike Trout with two outs and two runners on base in the eighth inning.

“I’ve been able to transition into not being as nervous about it, knowing I’m capable of getting guys out in this league,” Smith said. “As long as you have confidence out there and you don’t let anybody see through you, you’ll be able to pitch a long time.”

It’s only the beginning of Smith’s Big-League experience, but so far he has given the Mariners bullpen a needed late-inning lift. He took over the closer job after veteran Fernando Rodney struggled, and he found immediate success.

Smith_Stats

Mental Strength

Smith’s strong arm and the late life to his pitches impressed everyone, but the guys closest to him saw an intangible that the best relievers must have – a mental approach strong enough to withstand the pressure of a close game.

“I’ve been around a while and I’ve seen numerous guys come up and make their debuts with the good stuff that they have,” said former Mariners reliever Mark Lowe, who became a mentor to Smith before he was traded in July to the Blue Jays. “A lot of guys have good stuff, but not a lot of guys have the psychological aspect to be a good reliever. When I see Carson, I see the stuff and I see the psychological aspect. I see the short mind where what happened the day before is gone the next day.

“I’ve told him numerous times, ‘If you stay healthy, you will do this for a long time because you just have it.’”

Lowe’s first grand impression of Smith came from an interesting perspective – watching him on TV in April.

Lowe and Smith competed in Spring Training for a spot in the bullpen, but both were sent down to Class AAA Tacoma one week before the season opener. Four days later, the Mariners called up Smith while Lowe remained with Tacoma until he was called up in early May.

“When I was in Tacoma I saw him throw on TV and I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, there’s no reason that guy should ever be in Triple-A,’ ” Lowe said.

When the Mariners called up Lowe on May 4, he quickly learned that Smith had much more than a live arm.

“He wants to win every day. Every time we score a run he’s the first one screaming his lungs out in the bullpen,” Lowe said. “You appreciate that because a lot of guys may have the talent but it might just be for themselves. When you have a guy who has the talent and he wants to win, it’s only going to make him better and it’s going to make the team better, and hopefully other guys feed off that.”

Smith treasures the advice of the Mariners veteran relievers and credits them for his growth.

“It’s special that everybody is pulling for each other and trying to learn from each other,” he said. “That’s something I’m doing every day with these guys who’ve been around the game a long time.  I’m just taking it day-by-day and enjoying it while I’m doing it.”

Along with sage advice, Smith has absorbed plenty of good-natured ribbing from his bullpen elders. Much of it centers on Smith’s unconventional throwing motion, a drop-down fling from the side.

When Mariners reliever Joe Beimel first saw Smith playing catch in the outfield last year, he thought the youngster was kidding around. Every time Smith and Lowe played catch together this season, Lowe would shout sarcastically, “Get that ping-pong paddle out! Get the arm loose!”

Lowe described Smith’s arm slot as the perfect motion for playing ping-pong.

“In the offseason, everybody else has to work out,” Lowe said. “But all Carson has to do is play ping-pong and hit forehands over and over and over, and then he’s done. When he comes to spring training he’s ready to go. The mechanics are down and the release point is there.”

Every Experience Helps

Late-inning duty can deliver the ultimate high when Smith protects a lead, but the most bitter disappointment when he doesn’t. He has experienced it all – striking out Trout in the season opener and recording eight straight saves, but also suffering two losses and a blown save in a seven-day period in late July and early August.

“It’s tough to say what the high point has been because I have such a small sample size,” Smith said. “But if I had to pick a game, it’s my first appearance this year with Mike Trout up. That was special because a week prior to that, I thought I was going to be in Tacoma. But to be put into a situation like that, where the Mariners had the trust in me to get the job done, that was a pretty big turnaround for me in seven days.”

Smith has learned to handle the times he has struggled with the advice of his veteran teammates.

“I got onto him a couple of times, in a nice way of course, after he came in a couple of times and gave up a few hits but no runs,” Lowe said. “He expects so much of himself that he’s upset about the two hits he gave up. I would tell him, ‘This is the Big Leagues. You threw up a zero. That’s a good day. This is the highest level you can possibly pitch at. So what are you mad about? It’s over, it’s done and you did your job.’”

Confident as he is with his ability to handle the late-game pressure, Smith appreciates everything about being in the Major Leagues, including the successes and failures.

“I know there are going to be struggles,” he said. “That’s what this game is all about, struggling and then how you rebound. I’m just scratching the surface learning this game.

“I know that no day is guaranteed here. Anybody who takes a day for granted here is mistaken. I’ve been told by a lot of people that it’s easy to get here but it’s tough to stay.

I try to appreciate every little thing, from pulling up to the stadium in the afternoon, to the food here that is night and day different than the minor leagues, to the veterans I learn from. From that aspect, I hope I never get comfortable.”

Seattle Mariners opening day on Monday, April 6, 2015. (Photo: John Froschauer)


Kirby Arnold, a sports writer and editor for 42 years, covered the Mariners from 1999-2011 for The Herald in Everett, WA.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: