Smyly gets no decision, but no disaster, in debut
Drew Smyly grew up in Maumelle, Arkansas, just outside of Little Rock. He went college at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and he spent this past offseason training in Dallas. He made his Major League debut Thursday at Comerica Park, but he was heading towards another zip code when Tigers manager Jim Leyland went out to talk with him in the first inning.
“I could see that it might be getting close to Panicsville,” Leyland said, “and I didn’t want that to happen. So I just went out and tried to relax him a little bit.”
That was 12 pitches into the game. He got a little closer to downtown Panicsville when he walked Evan Longoria four pitches later to load the bases. He still hadn’t retired his first Major League hitter.
“I think it hit me when I had the bases loaded, no outs. I was like ‘[Dang], this is tough,’” Smyly said.
He looked at the Rays cleanup hitter, which was actually Jeff Keppinger, took a deep breath and tried to work with what he had going, which was a fastball and cutter that he could locate and breaking pitches that he could not.
“I was struggling, man,” Smyly said. “It was tough. I was just barely missing, and then I was missing low and I just couldn’t really get in a good groove. But once I got bases loaded, I was just like, ‘You’ve got to settle down and get out of this,’ and I was just trying to throw strikes and let the defense work. Luckily, I was able to get out of it.”
He didn’t really need his defense much to do it. After Keppinger flew out right field on a 1-1 pitch, he put an 0-2 count on Ben Zobrist before getting him to swing and miss at a 93 mph fastball with movement for his first big-league strikeout. He came with one of his best pitches of the day, a cutter, to fan Sean Rodriguez after that and thwart the threat.
After working to the precipice of disaster in 16 pitches, he stepped off of it in 12, all but one of them fastballs.
“He’s got a good fastball. It’s really sneaky,” catcher Alex Avila said. “He’s got a real deceptive motion, so his 91-92 looks like 94-95 the way he throws. That’s why he was getting a lot of guys out with a lot of swings and misses, a lot of weak outs.”
The Tigers and Rays had plenty of potential game-changing plays the rest of the day. That first inning, for the Rays, was the momentum-changer.
“It was all there for us, the big at-bat,” Maddon said. “I felt really good about Keppinger, with everything we’ve talked about, him moving the ball. And he did. It was a popup, but he didn’t hit it like he normally would. Then you’ve got punch out, punch out after that. So that gave [Smyly] that little breath of fresh air that kept him going later into that game.”
He didn’t go deep into the game, leaving one batter into the fifth inning. But he covered enough innings to avoid a ton of work for the Tigers bullpen, and he kept Detroit close against Jeff Niemann.
Pena’s third-inning solo homer was the only run off Smyly, who paid for his elevated pitch count with an early exit after 90 pitches once he hit Pena on his hands leading off the fifth. Collin Balester retired the side from there, putting himself in line for the win once Detroit put up three runs in the bottom of the inning.
“I thought he did OK,” said Leyland said. “I think he could do better. I think he’ll get a feel [for pitching]. It’s really tough to break in a kid like that, because you’re giving him game reports, and you have to be pretty simple with it. But you have to be able to make pitches up here. You have to be able to pitch to hitters’ weaknesses. And I think he’s got the control to do that at some point. We’ll just have to wait and see.
“However it turned out, he kept us in the game.”
He never did quite get a feel for the offspeed pitches through his nervousness, though he and Avila worked in a better mix in the third and fourth innings.
“He’s got really good stuff,” Avila said. “As the game went on, we had to throw more breaking pitches, which he did. He made some guys look really ugly with it. That was good to see, because he’s going to need everything. The best pitchers need everything.”
Maddon was impressed.
“He has good stuff. He has a good arm,” he said. “He’s going to be very good. Like a lot of young pitchers, command can be an issue and command was an issue with him. But he’s an interesting pitcher.”