Even big leaguers have setbacks, sometimes long before the big league eyes are watching.
Last night, Joe Smith saved his first big league game, a 3-2 win against the Toronto Blue Jays in 11 innings. It was another milestone in a six-year big league career with the New York Mets and Cleveland Indians. However, none of his professional achievements would have been possible without a lot of hard work and dedication as a teenager and amateur.
Smith was cut as a freshman in college at Wright State University.
“I came in and I knew my arm wasn’t back,” Smith said. “The coaches knew it, too, but at the end of the day, I thought we had an understanding. I thought I was going to red shirt and just wait, but after fall ball they called me in and told me I didn’t make the team.”
Smith was a three-year starter at Amelia High School in Batavia, Ohio, outside Cincinnati, where he graduated in 2002. He was a varsity pitcher as early as his sophomore season, but even then, he already could feel pain in his shoulder.
“After my sophomore year, that summer, I started having shoulder issues and I started going to physical therapy,” Smith said. “I didn’t start feeling good until after my junior year summer, so it was another year of throwing. Then, I felt something pop and it was time for surgery.”
Like most teenagers, Smith wanted to stay on the field, so he attended regular physical therapy sessions and pitched through mild pain for a full calendar year. But after feeling that pop after his junior season, he had little choice but to have his right labrum repaired. The right-handed pitcher would not be able to pitch during his senior season of high school, though he still could play.
The timing of the shoulder surgery made it difficult for Smith to do the proper rehabilitation necessary to get his arm back to a competitive level. A star basketball player at Amelia, Smith split his time between basketball, baseball and rehabilitation, which slowed down the process.
After high school, Smith headed to Wright State without an athletic scholarship, but the expectation of red-shirting his first year as a member of the team. However, after fall ball in his first year on campus, the coaching staff informed him he was cut. Smith knew his arm wasn’t yet healthy and always considered being cut as just a setback.
“I was like, ‘OK,’ I was a little confused but I was like, ‘Can I stick around and work out with the team?’ I just needed a year for my arm to come back and I would be good,” Smith said. “They allowed me to workout, and the next year I came back and my velocity was a couple ticks up and made the team and my arm just kept getting stronger.”
Smith finally was able to dedicate himself to baseball and the work necessary to strengthen his shoulder and arm.
“I knew I just needed a year,” Smith said. “It’s hard when you are in high school, because you have so much other stuff to narrow down your focus: to eat right and workout right. Plus, I wanted to play basketball, too. When I got to college, it was an opportunity to get stronger and get my arm back. It gave me a chance to focus.”
With a chance to dedicate himself to his rehabilitation, Smith rebounded and made the team in his second year at Wright State. Under Coach Ron Nicshwitz, the same coach that cut him a year earlier, he thrived as a member of the bullpen. However, in his redshirt junior season, new Coach Rob Cooper and his staff suggested he consider dropping his arm slot to a side-arm position.
“My velocity came back to 88 to 91, but my curveball never came back for some reason,” Smith said. “Getting over the top was tough after my surgery. New coaches came in and they were trying out some guys (throwing sidearm), and I said I could do it.”
Physically, Smith could throw sidearm, but he was not sold on the idea of transposing himself into a sidearm pitcher.
“I got up on the mound and somehow they convinced me to do it,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to do it. I said I’d do it once in a while, but they told me I had to do it all the time. I said I’d try it until I got hit.”
With a new arm slot and newfound strong curveball, Smith thrived at Wright State. In his three seasons there, he was 6-5 with a 1.53 ERA and 22 saves in 80 games. He was named the Horizon League Pitcher of the Year as a junior and led league with 13 saves. His success in the three seasons after rebuilding his shoulder made him the New York Mets’ third round pick in the 2006 First Year Player Draft.
Smith signed quickly and reported to Short Season-A Brooklyn of the New York-Penn League. Unlike his college career that began with pitfalls, his professional career took off fast. Smith did not allow a run over his last 16 outings with the Cyclones before being promoted to Double-A Binghamton on Aug. 1. Smith made the Mets out of Spring Training in 2007, and within a year he had gone from the Horizon League to the National League.
“It was a lot of fun,” Smith said. “One year I was facing guys in the Horizon League and the year later I was facing the St. Louis Cardinals on Opening Day. It was a whirlwind, but it was a lot of fun. If you play this game, you want to play against the best, so it was, ‘Let’s go, let’s see if I’m good enough.’ It’s one of those things that makes you prove yourself.”
Since proving himself in 2007 with the Mets, Smith has had a strong career as a right-handed reliever. Smith is 21-14, with a 3.11 ERA over 315.2 innings and 369 appearances, all in relief, during his big league career.
After the 2008 season, the Mets traded Smith to the Indians as part of a three-team trade that sent Franklin Gutierrez to the Seattle Mariners. Since joining the Tribe, Smith has been a mainstay in the bullpen, pitching in the back-end the last couple of seasons with closer Chris Perez and set-up man Vinnie Pestano.
Smith is 12-9, with a 2.90 ERA in four seasons with the Indians and has pitched a scoreless inning of relief in each of the Tribe’s two games this year. Tuesday, he relieved Justin Masterson with a scoreless seventh inning, and last night he locked down his first big league save with a scoreless 11th inning.
A key piece of the Indians’ bullpen, Smith is focused on the season ahead and getting the Indians off to a good start with a rebuilt roster. However, his place in the big leagues never would have been possible without the hard work he put in years ago after his setback. His advice to young athletes, or anyone with dreams, is to focus on what is important and what it takes to achieve your goals.
“Just know what you want to do,” Smith said. “This is something I always wanted to do, so I made sure when I was able to work out, I focused specifically on baseball, I wasn’t going to leave any doubt. That’s a good plan for no matter what you want to be, work as hard as you can. You’re only going to be as good as you want to be.”
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer