Only a month ago, he was one of the best feel-good stories in MLB. Caleb Smith, who had a promising rookie season with the Miami Marlins derailed by a fluky shoulder injury almost exactly a year ago, started his sophomore season on a tear. At the end of April, Smith sat near the top of the National League leaderboards in ERA and strikeouts.
For a month, Smith hasn’t been the same pitcher. The Milwaukee Brewers became the latest to disrupt Smith’s success story Thursday when they belted three home runs in the first three innings on the way to a 5-1 win in Milwaukee.
“I threw three pitches right down the middle,” Smith said, “and they hit homers.”
The outing, which lasted only five innings with four earned runs, was Smith’s sixth straight with at least two earned runs and the fifth time in a row he failed to reach the seventh inning.
Two major issues have plagued him: Hitters are running up his pitch count with long at-bats and he’s giving up too many home runs. It took all of two batters for both issues to bite him and the Marlins (23-37) on Thursday.
The bottom of the first began against Lorenzo Cain. Smith jumped ahead 1-2 before Cain worked the count full by fouling off three pitches. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Smith walked the All-Star outfielder.
Christian Yelich didn’t wait. The MVP outfielder jumped on a first-pitch fastball to start the next at-bat and launched a 439-foot home run to put Smith in a 2-0 hole. Three batters later, Mike Moustakas jumped on another first-pitch fastball — up and away to the lefty, just like the pitch to Yelich — and launched it out of the park to give the Brewers (35-28) a 3-0 lead. For the first time in three days, the 25,409 at Miller Park had reason for sustained cheers.
“When guys pay for stuff, it’s usually when they were trying to go one place and we end up in another and it’s usually what happens, especially with those kind of guys,” manager Don Mattingly said. “Those guys have been swinging the bat good this year. You’ve got to get the ball to the right areas. If you don’t, you pay.”
Smith (3-4) never could recover. Milwaukee added another hit in the first inning, then another in the second. Moustakas came to the plate for the second time in the third inning and launched a solo homer to stretch the Brewers’ lead to 4-0. In the fourth, Smith issued his second walk of the game. In the fifth, he coughed up another single and then he was gone. The lefty never put together a clean inning and struck out only two batters before Miami pinch hit for him to lead off the sixth.
While Smith usually throws a slower-than-average fastball, his velocity was down even more Thursday. The pitcher topped out at 92.4 mph — barely faster than his 92.2-mph average velocity entering Thursday.
Although this was Smith’s fourth consecutive loss, there were signs of progress Friday in his loss to the San Diego Padres. Smith struck out eight batters and allowed only three hits in San Diego, and his average fastball velocity ticked back up to 92.7 mph — the fastest since his second start of the year. Going into the start, Smith worked with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. to get his arm slot back as high as it’s supposed to be, Mattingly said. Smith, however, couldn’t pinpoint a precise reason for his issues Thursday.
“It just didn’t feel like it was coming out good today,” Smith said, “so it was one of those days I just didn’t have my good stuff.”
The deficit was too large for Miami to claw back from, even after utility player Rosell Herrera doubled as the pinch-hitter for Smith and came around to score on a single by outfielder Garrett Cooper. Milwaukee gathered for a mound visit around Freddy Peralta and the starting pitcher got the last two outs he needed to quell the Marlins’ sixth-inning threat.
Otherwise, Peralta (3-2) carved through Miami’s lineup, which combined for 24 runs to take the first two of the three-game series in Wisconsin. The right-handed pitcher didn’t give up a hit until the top of the fourth inning and the double by outfielder Austin Dean only served to break up what would have been eight consecutive strikeouts. In six innings, the righty struck out nine batters and gave up only one run on four hits without a walk.
“He looked like he was kind of handling us early,” Mattingly said. “He just kind of kept basically beating us with that fastball.”