Caleb Smith spent his first month of spring training working in the background, relying on a healthy dose of bullpen sessions and simulated games.
Coming back from injury has its costs. For Smith, rehab served as a substitution for playing time.
But on Wednesday, at long last, Smith made his way onto the mound at Roger Dean Stadium in the sixth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals to make his first appearance in a live game since June 24.
“I’m hoping he’s good,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said before the game.
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How’s this for good: Four perfect innings with six strikeouts on just 47 pitches.
Smith struck out the first four batters he faced and retired all 12 batters that came his way as he closed out a 4-1 win over the Cardinals, the Marlins’ fifth consecutive spring training win.
“I don’t know if you can expect anything better than that,” Mattingly said. “If he can do that every time, we’ll be fine with it.”
It was a welcomed spring debut for Smith, the 27-year-old lefty who had a solid start to his rookie season for the Marlins last year (5-6, 4.19 ERA in 16 starts) before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery to repair a Grade 3 lat strain. It kept him off a mound for nearly seven months.
The Marlins eased Smith back to full strength this spring, utilizing simulated games on the back field through simulated games to increase his pitch count and stamina each week to keep him on pace with the rest of the team’s starters.
Two innings, 30 pitches.
Three innings, 45 pitches.
Four innings, 60 pitches.
“We wanted him in a controlled environment,” Mattingly said.
But no amount of work compares to live competition, even if it’s a spring training game.
Smith said the adrenaline was there on Wednesday, but so were the nerves.
“I almost forgot what it felt like,” he said.
But after opening the appearance with a pair of low pitches to Dexter Fowler, Smith got into his groove.
He promptly bounced back to strike out Fowler on an 85 mph changeup. Seven pitches later, he struck out Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna on an 85 mph curveball and a 95 mph four-seam fastball, respectively. 12 pitches, nine strikes, four swings and misses.
“He’s back,” Smith said teammates told him in the dugout after that first frame.
Smith commanded all of his pitches. His fastball topped out at 95 mph and stayed between 92 and 94 mph. His curveball and changeup sat in the mid-80’s.
Of his 33 strikes, 12 were swings and misses — including all six strikeouts.
The numbers keep pace with his pre-surgery success.
According to Statcast, Smith’s four-seam fastball last season had an average spin rate — which increases deception and induces swings and misses — of 2,365 revolutions per minute, a mark that ranked tied for 19th among all MLB pitchers and fifth among lefties who threw that pitch at least 750 times in 2018. The league average is about 2,200.
His 10.8-percent swinging strike rate ranked 18th among left-handed pitchers and was higher than Clayton Kershaw (10.2) and CC Sabathia (10.1).
“I feel normal,” Smith said. “Back to normal.”
It also adds another wrinkle to the Marlins’ starting pitcher competition. With Jose Urena and Dan Straily holding down two spots, Smith is competing with Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez, Trevor Richards and Wei-Yin Chen for one of essentially three spots.
Lopez and Richards have both impressed all spring. Lopez has given up one run in nine innings over three appearances and twirled four perfect innings of his own on Saturday. Richards, who is adding a curveball to his pitching arsenal, has pitched 13 1/3 innings over four spring training starts posting a 2.70 ERA with 14 strikeouts.
Alcantara has a 1.50 ERA over four starts.
“You like to see the improvement,” Mattingly said. “... Those guys are showing improvement.”
Smith, like the rest of the starters, will likely get two more chances to make his case this spring.
His debut was a success, but he knows he needs to follow up.
“I can only go out there and perform,” Smith said. “It’s not my decision to put myself in the rotation or not. All I can do is go out there and show them what I have.”