As a 23-year-old in 2013, Burch Smith struck out 46 batters in 36 1/3 innings for the Padres. After "the worst three years" of his life, he's back to thriving on the mound once again.
The Rays right-hander pitched six hitless innings Wednesday as Class A Advanced Charlotte blanked Jupiter, 2-0. His nine strikeouts blew by his previous season high of four and he walked two batters in his longest outing since returning from Tommy John surgery.
Gameday box score
"I just felt like everything was working," Smith said. "I missed quite a bit of time, so I've been kind of fighting myself more on the mound lately just trying to get everything synced up and feeling good. Mechanically, I felt the most synchronized tonight, and that being the case, my fastball and off-speed pitches kind of fell in line after that."
Smith (3-1) cruised through a 1-2-3 first inning before walking John Silviano to start the second, but he struck out the next three batters on 11 pitches, including three-pitch strikeouts of Boo Vazquez and Angel Reyes. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Texas native continued to build momentum from there, working around a fielding error by third baseman Kevin Padlo, the Rays No. 28 prospect, in the third and tossing a clean fourth.
"Every outing, he's gotten a bit stronger," Stone Crabs manager Michael Johns said. "Tonight what stood out is he threw all his pitches for strikes, threw them in any count and filled up the bottom of the zone, which is usually a recipe for a good night."
San Diego's 14th-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2011 walked Cleuluis Rondon with two outs in the fifth before getting Chris Hoo to ground out to second. He pitched a 1-2-3 sixth before being pulled from the game after a season-high 80 pitches. The team continues to tread carefully with Smith, whose last pitch before this June was on April 12, 2014.
"With the no-hitter, we started debating on whether to send him out for the seventh inning. We decided to get him out of there after 80 pitches, he hadn't gone six innings all year," Johns said. "He wasn't going to be able to finish the game, so for us, it was a no-brainer."
Smith hasn't allowed more than two runs in eight of his past 10 starts and is riding an 11-inning scoreless streak. He's thrown between 61 and 80 pitches in his last nine outings, but Wednesday marked the first time he recorded an out in the sixth inning. All three of his outings of at least five frames have come within his last five as he gets readjusted to the game.
"The first few games he started, his velocity was around 90-91 [mph], and not that velo is everything, but we know he's better," Johns said. "Now with the same mechanics and arm speed, the ball is coming out better, up at 94-96 with really good life. The biggest thing that stuck out tonight was command of all his pitches, and that's the telltale sign a pitcher is healthy. It was a very positive step in the right direction for him obviously."
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Smith's journey back to the diamond was a long one. He missed most of the 2014 campaign with a forearm strain before being traded to Tampa Bay that offseason as part of a trade that sent Wil Myers to the Padres. The decision to undergo Tommy John surgery was made in April 2015, and it cost Smith two full seasons.
"I can tell you it's not fun to be hurt at all," Smith said. "Mentally it was really a big test for me, but I was able to stay positive and maximize my recovery that whole time -- be it in the weight room, diet, rest -- just doing everything I could possibly do to be ready for this moment to come back and not miss a step, or at least be as back to normal as I can be. I learned a lot during that time."
For a pitcher who reached the Majors in 2013 and was enjoying success at the Triple-A level before his injury, returning to the low Minors can be a humbling experience. Smith, however, has taken a different approach to being in the Florida State League.
"Honestly, I'm more than happy to just be participating again, because it was the worst three years of my life being hurt," Smith said. "It might sound funny to say, but to take away the biggest love of your life -- competing and playing baseball -- and to not have that for so long, it's really not fun. I'm thrilled to be back playing again, regardless of where it is."
Smith lowered his season ERA to 2.43. After initially struggling to find his command after such a long time away, he's walked nine batters in his last 22 1/3 innings after issuing 11 free passes over his first 17 2/3 frames. Even with the steady improvements, results are far from Smith's top priority for the rest of the season.
"First and foremost, I want to end the year on a healthy note, make all my outings, all my bullpens and just be a normal pitcher again," Smith said. "As far as other goals, I really just want to continue to progress every outing, keep pushing my pitch count up, try to get deeper in the ballgame and try to refine all of my off-speed pitches and locations and get back in the swing of things."
Padlo opened the scoring in the fourth with a homer to left-center field and Riley Unroe added to the lead in the following frame with a solo shot to center, his first homer since joining Charlotte on Aug. 3. Those long balls were two of the Stone Crabs' three hits on the night.
Scott Squier (5-7) allowed two runs on three hits and two walks while matching his season high with seven strikeouts over five innings.