Caleb Smith’s month-long wait to return to the Miami Marlins could have come unhinged after his first pitch on Saturday.
Ronald Acuna Jr. took Smith’s 90.7 mph fastball offering left up just enough in the zone and sent it 431 feet into the seats in center field at SunTrust Park. One inning later, Austin Riley followed by sending a change-up to left-center field.
But Smith, pitching for the Marlins for the first time since going on the injured list on June 7 with left-hip inflammation, settled in after the shaky start to throw six innings in his return.
Couple that with enough support from the offense, and the Marlins held on to defeat the Atlanta Braves 5-4 and even up the three-game road series. The series finale — and final game for both teams before the All-Star Break — begins at 1:20 p.m. Sunday.
Smith’s final line — four runs (three earned) on five hits and a walk — doesn’t look great on its own. The two home runs allowed in the first two innings continued another troubling trend, with Smith giving up multiple home runs in four consecutive big-league starts. He also gave up two home runs in each of his rehab appearances for Double A Jacksonville.
What was promising: Smith retired the final nine batters he faced, three by strikeout and finished the day with six strikeouts while his command and ability to induce swings and misses improved throughout the game. His final three innings were reminiscent of his first seven starts of the season, the stretch in which he had six quality starts and held opponents to a .176 batting average while averaging 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
“It took a few innings to get comfortable,” Smith said. “Obviously this is one of the better lineups that we’re going to face this season. You have to give them credit, but at the same time I have to make better pitches. I just wasn’t doing that early.”
His fastball velocity, which dropped to 90.9 mph against the Milwaukee Brewers on June 6 in his final start before going on the IL, returned to normal. He averaged 92.3 mph and topped out at 94.6 mph on Saturday.
Smith threw 95 pitches, 61 of which went for strikes.
“Smitty was OK, I think,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “It looked like his command was off, but he kept battling and got us some big outs in the end there.”
The Marlins’ offense matched Smith’s rebound to close out his start and give him his first win since May 1.
Harold Ramirez and Starlin Castro hit solo home runs in the second and third to chip away at the Braves’ lead before the Marlins (33-54) took the lead with a three-run fifth. Garrett Cooper and Castro led off the inning with consecutive singles, Jorge Alfaro drove Cooper home with a double to right field, and Yadiel Rivera put the Marlins on top with a two-run single to left.
“We just hung around long enough to settle into the game,” Mattingly said.
Castro and Alfaro finished with three hits each. Miguel Rojas and Cooper, who left the game in the sixth with right leg cramps, each had two hits.
Even with 15 hits, the Marlins stranded 11 runners on base and went 2 for 8 with runners in scoring position.
Smith also received a needed defensive assist in the fourth when Nick Markakis hit a two-out double to right field with runners on first and second. Ozzie Albies scored easily on the play before a relay throw from Rivera in right field to Cooper at first base to Alfaro resulted in an inning-ending tagout at the plate.
Austin Brice, Nick Anderson and Sergio Romo each threw a scoreless inning of relief to seal the win. Romo, pitching for the first time since June 29, earned his 16th save of the year.