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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Smyly keeps his cool

The essence of good headline writing is using silly puns, plays on words and phrases.

So it was inevitable that Drew Smyly's name would fit that bill perfectly. 

[Look no further than our own "Rookie pitcher puts Smyly face on 5-1 homestand" to see what I mean.]

But the funniest part of the whole thing? It's kind of an oxymoron. At least when he's on the mound, Drew Smyly isn't tremendously smiley. 

He seems to be no-nonsense. All business.

That's the thing that — apart from his clear propensity to throw strikes — his teammates and manager have noticed most about the 22-year-old through his first big league spring training and the start of the regular season.

"The thing is, he’s a really — he doesn’t show any emotions. He could be doing bad, but you can’t really tell," said Tigers catcher Alex Avila, who wasn't really sure how the rookie was faring emotionally, when he loaded the bases with no outs in the first inning of his MLB debut last week. 
"You really get to know guys now, how they react in adversity, times like that. But he’s a cool customer. You can tell. He doesn’t get rattled easily. His demeanor, his poise, everything is very good. Even when he was struggling a little bit, just got back up there, and went right after them. You like that. You want that in guys. You can teach that. You’ve gotta be born with it, and he is. He’s pitched in big situations before, in circumstances where things are on the line, and he’s been through it, just fine. I know he was pretty excited about this one."

The Tigers might want to get a little excited about this one, too.

Despite not having pitched above the Double-A level in his first year of professional ball, Smyly's credentials as the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year earned him a spot in the six-man derby for the fifth starter role. Even before spring training began, General Manager Dave Dombrowski tabbed him as one to watch, saying that some in the organization felt he might be the most ready.

In the end, it was his composure that may have won him the job. More than anything truly impressive that he did, it was the fact that didn't let the mounting pressure — as the competition narrowed from six to just three late in camp — get to him at all that separated him. His competitors can't necessarily say the same, as two of them — Andy Oliver and Duane Below — both had shaky starts in the final week of the competition.

So far, it doesn't look like joining the big league rotation has ruffled Smyly's feathers all that much, either. In his first start, despite the fact that he lasted just four innings, as his pitch count hit 90 way too early, he kept the Tigers in the game. He was disappointed he didn't go deeper.

In Tuesday's second start, he was much more efficient, doing just what he'd promised he'd do, going six innings, giving up just one unearned run. That came in the third inning, when he was hit by Alcides Escobar's line drive in the small of the back, on the first truly hard-hit ball of the evening. 

"It was pretty scary. He got smoked in the back pretty good," manager Jim Leyland said in his postgame TV interview.

Smyly tracked the ball down near the first-base line, and still tried to get Escobar out at first, but fired a bullet low, near the shoetops of Prince Fielder, and on past. The error put Escobar on second, and he'd come in two pitches later, as Alex Gordon singled to center on an 0-2 pitch to tie the game at 1-1.

Another instance where Smyly could have folded under the pressure, and let the inning snowball. He certainly could have come out of the game after getting dinged by the line drive.

Instead, he calmly got a fielder's choice to end the third, then wiggled out of a two-on, two-out jam in the  fourth to keep it 1-1. He'd last three full innings after getting hit by the line drive, coming out after throwing six innings, giving up the lone unearned run on seven hits, striking out four. His only walk was an intentional pass to Jeff Francouer in the sixth. 

While he still has yet to get a win, he's already shown that he deserved the trust the Tigers organization has placed in him. He'll do exactly what's expected of the fifth man in the rotation: Keep the Tigers in the game.

"That’s what we want him to do. As our fifth guy, pitch five, six innings, keep us in the game, give us a chance to win," Avila said. "That’s it."
So far, he's done that perfectly. He left his first start with the Tigers down 1-0. He left his second with the score tied 1-1. 

With a team that has the potential to score a ton of runs, that's perfect. 
"You’re not worried about being down 1-0, or 2-0, or whatever. You know this team’s going to go out and score runs every game," Smyly said after his debut. "So you’ve gotta stay within yourself, make sure you keep getting outs, keep it close."

And stay cool.

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