The Braves have the perfect closer for their team in William Michael Smith.
No, no, hear me out.
Over the past month I’d become convinced that the Braves weren’t going anywhere in the postseason — assuming they even reached the postseason — with Will Smith as their closer.
After Sunday’s latest high-wire act, I’m now convinced that Smith is the right man for the job.
Call it karma.
Nothing has been easy for this team, since before Opening Day. Would’ve been nice to have Mike Soroka in the rotation this summer. Then it was Marcel Ozuna, and Travis d’Arnaud joining the injury brigade, and three months of two steps back and two steps forward. And then Ronald Acuna took his leave of absence.
Credit GM Alex Anthopoulos for restocking the entire outfield on the fly in July. A short lineup suddenly had length again. Then the pitching came around. After the long struggle, the nine-game winning streak in August propelled the Braves into first place.
They’ve clung to the lead since, doggedly chased by the Phillies. The lead fluctuated between one and five games, with the Braves having to battle every day, never able to relax.
And that’s how it is with Smith. He ought to enter games to Leon Russell’s “Tight Rope.”
Nothing beats having a closer who pitches clean innings. Keep the excitement and angst to a minimum. Add a few years to the lives of your manager and fans.
But to Will Smith, clean innings are anathema. He prefers creating chaos just to see what might happen. Sunday, he took things to the extreme.
Brought in to protect a one-run lead in San Diego, Smith demonstrated no noticeable familiarity with the strike zone. He walked Jake Cronenworth on six pitches to begin the proceedings. He then walked Manny Machado on five.
That brought up MVP candidate Fernando Tatis, Jr. as a pinch hitter. Smith tossed him a 76-mile-per-hour curve for a called strike. After a ball, Tatis looked at two straight sliders for strikes, the second of which appeared to be a very generous call by plate umpire Greg Gibson.
Then came Tommy Pham, who promptly walked on four pitches, loading the bases. This elicited a visit from pitching coach Rick Kranitz, who presumably suggested that it might be a good idea not to walk anyone else.
Inspired, Smith threw two slow sliders for strikes to Trent Grisham. After the count evened, Grisham looked at a fastball for strike three. Ha-Seong Kim appeared next. After falling behind 2-0, Smith threw four straight strikes, astounding all. The last, another fastball, was swung on and missed to end the game.
We detailed Smith’s outing because it made baseball history. Smith is the only person in MLB annals to walk the bases loaded and also record three strikeouts as part of a scoreless one-inning save. But that’s nothing new. Smith also did it on April 16 against the Cubs.
“We’re a gritty group,” Smith told MLB.com after the excitement subsided. “We just want to win. That’s all we try to do every day. When we show up, we don’t try to get ahead of ourselves. We don’t worry about yesterday. Show up, do your job, play hard, be a good teammate, and good things will happen.”
For the most part, that’s been true. Smith has 35 saves in 41 chances, though most have involved various levels of anxiety. He’s been hit hard lately, often beginning an appearance with a loud hit. David O’Brien of The Athletic tweeted Friday, “In his past 20 appearances, Braves’ closer Will Smith has allowed 7 home runs, and 11 runs in 19.1 innings. Has 4 blown saves and 2 losses in that span.”
But manager Brian Snitker has Smith’s back. “You just never know what might happen,” said Snitker after Sunday’s game. “That’s the one thing about Will, you know. That guy never gives in. He just kept pitchin’. And good for him.”
So does his catcher. “It shows how much fight he has,” d’Arnaud told MLB.com. “To have the bases loaded in the ninth, it’s obviously a situation we didn’t want to be in. But for him to get three punchies in that situation is huge. It shows the kind of heart he has and the will to win that he has.”
Smith’s save set up the Braves to open their crucial series with the Phillies clinging to a 2.5 game lead. Both teams have their best starters lined up for the three-game set that amounts to a playoff series.
It won’t be easy for the Braves. But they’re used to that.
So is their closer.