Confident Smith spells relief for Mets
Randolph not afraid to bring in rookie righty in tight situations
ATLANTA -- Oliver Perez got the win and Billy Wagner got the save, but the right-handed contribution to New York's 3-0 shutout of Atlanta on Wednesday night might be the most encouraging development of all for the Mets.
Joe Smith, a rookie right-hander with a sidearm delivery and a sinking fastball, retired the side in order in the eighth inning to bridge the gap between starter Perez and closer Wagner.
Smith struck out Edgar Renteria on a slider, then fanned Chipper Jones on a changeup. Both went down swinging. Smith got Jeff Francoeur to fly out to right on a fastball to end his perfect frame.
Score this one under the rich get richer category. With the majority of teams searching for bullpen help with the midsummer trade session right around the corner, the first-place Mets appear to have found another effective reliever without having to trade away the farm or break the bank.
There's no doubt Mets manager Willie Randolph has confidence in the youngster.
In a bullpen with several other more experienced late-inning options, such as Aaron Heilman, Pedro Feliciano, Ambiorix Burgos and Scott Schoenweis, Randolph once again demonstrated his faith in the kid. And Smith delivered.
"Nice job by Joe coming in there and attacking the zone, getting the ball down and going after the tough hitters," Randolph said. "I've got a lot of confidence in him, and because I don't use my bullpen necessarily as seventh, eighth or ninth [roles], everyone's got to be ready. Another good job by Joe. He's done a nice job this year."
Smith, of course, is not the only right-handed option in the bullpen. Burgos, Heilman and Aaron Sele also throw from the right side. But the kid's submarine delivery, which is not quite Ted Abernathy, but not exactly Dan Quisenberry either in terms of mechanics, has made him extremely tough, especially on right-handed hitters, who are batting .143 (7-for-49) with 18 strikeouts against Smith.
This was also his third consecutive scoreless outing after giving up three runs in two-thirds of an inning against Milwaukee on May 12, his only blemish in 21 appearances.
"He's not always going to pitch lights-out," Randolph said. "If he didn't come back after that, then I'd be a little concerned. To me, it's when you get knocked around in succession and see how you respond from that. He's a pretty tough kid."
The 23-year-old picked up his throwing style on a lark.
"I just started throwing sidearm 2 1/2 years ago, just goofing around one day pretty much," Smith said. "I needed something new to kind of get me noticed."
Smith was pitching at Wright State at the time, and his work got him noticed by the Mets, who took him in the third round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. He dominated in Class A ball (0.45 ERA with 28 strikeouts and three walks in 20 innings) and earned a promotion to Double-A Binghamton, where he finished last season.
This year, he's made a seamless move to the Major Leagues.
Set up? No problem. The meat of the Atlanta order in the eighth? The kid will take his chances.
"You can't really worry about who you're facing or what [your role] is," Smith said. "They're all very good hitters. You just have to keep the ball down and throw strikes. We had a three-run lead, so I didn't want to walk anybody."
Smith, who throws a fastball, two-seamer, changeup and slider, takes comfort in the knowledge of the defense behind him and the other members of the bullpen.
"Usually, they bring me in with runners on base, and I just try to get the ground ball, because if you get a ground ball with this infield, there's a good chance we're going to get a double play," Smith said. "We've got a good bullpen, and whatever we've been doing, it's been working."
The rookie jitters he occasionally experienced earlier in the season have vanished. Now, when superstars like Jones step into the batter's box, Smith isn't bug-eyed.
"You still get that nervous adrenalin rush kind of going," he said. "I enjoyed it. I'm still learning, there's a lot to learn about pitching to big-league hitters. But this is fun. I'm just happy to be in the big leagues."
The Mets are happy he's here, too.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.