Will Smith, ladies and gentlemen.
It’s rarely possible for a middle reliever to take a star turn in a close game, but Smith delivered a killer 4 1/3 innings on Monday afternoon in a 3-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners at Kauffman Stadium.
Smith permitted one hit, on a ball that center fielder Jarrod Dyson lost in the sun, after replacing an erratic Danny Duffy with two on and two outs in the fourth inning.
“I don’t know what it was,” Smith said, “but it worked today.”
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That is major-league understatement. Smith, 2-1, set a career high with eight strikeouts and did so with eye-popping efficiency by throwing just 46 pitches.
“He was able to throw a curveball and a slider effectively,” Mariners catcher Mike Zunino said. “Then he was able to get a fastball in there, too, to sort of slow us down and then speed us up. He did a great job today.”
It was good enough to enabled the Royals to beat Seattle ace Felix Hernandez, who permitted three runs and six hits 6 2/3 innings before departing after experiencing a cramp in his lower back.
“For a couple of innings,” manager Ned Yost said, “it looked like the strike zone was getting expanded a little bit. When you get Felix Hernandez on top of his game with an expanded strike zone, you’re going to be in trouble.”
Now add Duffy struggling to find the strike zone...but Smith changed the game’s geometry.
“Oh, man,” Dyson marveled, “that dude did a heck of a job on the bump today. Will, he had everything working.”
The Royals nicked Hernandez, 12-9, for the tying run in the fourth inning on Mike Moustakas’ RBI single before a run-and-play with Dyson and Alcides Escobar fueled a two-run fifth.
That was it. And it was enough.
Smith nursed that lead to All-Star closer Greg Holland, who worked around a two-out single in the ninth for his 30th straight successful save conversion and his 37th overall in 39 chances.
The Royals improved to 71-66 and moved, temporarily, to within five games of Tampa Bay for the American League’s final wild-card slot. The Rays played later Monday at Los Angeles.
Smith had not pitched more than three innings since June 29 but seemed to grow stronger as the innings unfolded.
“My concern started to heighten when he got done with the sixth inning,” Yost admitted. “I’m thinking, `OK, he’s really throwing good, too good to take out of the ballgame.’
“But...we were going to be real quick (with a hook), knowing we had Felix Hernandez against us, and (unlikely to have) too many more opportunities. But he never put us in a position where we had to do anything.”
Smith said, “Every time I came in there, Ned was asking, `You all right?’ I’d say, `Yeah, I’m fine.’ And I wasn’t lying to him. I was fine. I was able to go back out.”
Asked if he could have pitched the ninth, too, Smith nodded.
“Yeah,” he said, “but we’ve got a guy (Holland) who is pret-t-t-y good at that.”
Smith’s efficiency stood in contrast to Duffy, who never found the comfort zone he flashed in two previous starts. He threw 91 pitches in just 3 2/3 innings — and seemed under constant siege— but yielded just one run.
“People will say in my career my biggest enemy is my pitch efficiency,” Duffy said, “and today I just didn’t have it. But I’ve felt really in control as of late. I expect to have it in my next start.”
Duffy stranded six runners over the first three innings but got two quick outs in the fourth before Seattle struck for its only run. Abraham Almonte doubled into the lefty-center, and Brad Miller followed with a triple to right.
Right fielder David Lough nearly made a spectacular diving catch on Miller’s hooking line drive. Nearly. It was the first run yielded by Duffy in 16 1/3 innings over three starts.
When Duffy walked the next hitter, Yost summoned Smith — and everything changed. Smith retired nine in a row before Dyson lost Kyle Seager’s fly in the seventh for a two-out double.
“I saw it all the way,” Dyson said. “It just got in the sun at the last minute. I couldn’t even tell my corner guys that I couldn’t see it. It was just one of them hang-with-it plays.”
Smith responded by striking out Kendrys Morales. Three more outs, on just six pitches in the eighth, got the game to Holland.
“Talking with the guys,” Seattle manager Eric Wedge said, “they were able to see his fastball and his curveball, but they were having a lot of trouble picking up the slider for whatever reason. He handled us pretty good.”
The Royals pulled even in the fourth after Eric Hosmer blooped a one-out single into right. He then challenged Almonte’s arm, and won, when Billy Butler snapped a zero-for-16 skid with a ground single up the middle.
Moustakas tied the game with an RBI single.
Dyson’s one-out bunt single ignited the two-run fifth. First baseman Justin Smoak fielded the ball, but Dyson beat Hernandez to the base for a single.
“That seemed to get him a little riled up,” Dyson said. “A little ground ball, and then you beat them out. Then you take a bag or whatever. He seemed kind of upset about that.”
Dyson broke for second on a pitch to Escobar, who grounded a single through the right side that put runners at first and third.
“That was no hit-and-run,” Escobar said. “I saw Dyson trying to steal second base, breaking on the pitch, and I said, `OK. Try to hit the ball to second base.’ Perfect.”
After Escobar stole second, Hernandez bounced a run-scoring wild pitch past catcher Mike Zunino. After Alex Gordon walked, Emilio Bonifacio’s fly to short right turned into a sacrifice fly and a 3-1 lead.
Plenty for Smith.
“There’s just not a whole lot to say about (the game),” Duffy said, “outside the fact that Will Smith did a heck of a job. His slider is disgusting.”
In the best possible way.