Left-handed reliever Josh Smoker continues on a tear with the Single-A Potomac Nationals, keeping opponents off the base paths and not allowing runs.
His ERA continues to dive with each successive scoreless inning, now reading 1.75 ERA. His velocity has even hit an astounding 97 mph. The Calhoun, Ga., native has allowed only one run in his past 10 appearances.
But with any good relief pitcher, you also have to find your way out of jams that you are placed in and ones that you bring on yourself.
This week against Lynchburg, during a sweltering July afternoon game, Smoker walked the first batter he faced in the top of the ninth. The P-Nats’ were clinging to a 1-0 lead.
He was able to strike out designated hitter Geraldo Rodriguez looking to record the first out. Then, he hit right fielder Keenan Wiley with a pitch, putting the tying run 180 feet away and the winning run on first base.
With one out and two men on, the 22-year-old Smoker was able to get Lynchburg center fielder L.V. Ware to strike out. With two outs, Smoker got top of the order left fielder Marcus Lemon to hit a comebacker to him which he had to dive for and then he threw to first base for the final out of the game.
Smoker was charged up coming off the mound with the save, as he pumped his fist in the air.
“Walks are going to happen,” Smoker said. “I was getting a little tired there at the end. They helped me by swinging the last few times. It (helped) to have the whole team clicking on all cylinders.”
Even with temperatures rising past 95 degrees and the mid-Atlantic humidity bearing down on him in the final frame, Smoker was able to focus in and finish off the Hillcats.
“It is cool to be out there in the ninth inning,” Smoker said. “That was a big game. Sometimes you just have to push the heat to the side. It is tough but it is still a lot of fun to go out there and play.”
What a difference a year makes for the Nats’ second selection of the 2007 draft. Last year at Single-A Hagerstown, Smoker went 3-10 with a 6.50 ERA with 56 walks, mostly as a starter (19 out of 30 games).
Smoker said the biggest change is his attitude on the mound to get after hitters.
“I have been trying to get some aggression back,” Smoker said. “Baseball is a an explosive sport. Sometimes you kind of lose that edge, that aggressiveness.”
Potomac pitching coach Paul Menhart said he has noticed this difference in Smoker since opening day.
“He has been like that all year,” Menhart said. “His fire is unmatched. You can actually see the fire every time he throws a pitch. He is that excited about being out there and he gets after it every pitch. It is like life or death every time he is out there. I love that about him”
Smoker likes to get ahead with his plus-90mph fastball. If he can get ahead, he likes to throw the curveball and the split finger and “bounced it on the plate.”
He has been struggling with his curveball recently, but was able to throw it for strikes against Lynchburg.