Royals pitcher Burch Smith sat in the visiting dugout at Target Field one day before he made his first major-league start in five years and told a reporter the moment wasn’t going to swallow him up.
At 28 years old, he’s already done the whole being-overwhelmed-by-the-big-league-lights thing. Playing at this level is not a stress factor in his life anymore. It’s one part of his makeup that Royals officials glommed onto when they decided to pursue Smith in December’s Rule 5 Draft, one pick after trading up for 22-year-old pitcher Brad Keller.
So when asked what it meant to him to receive an opportunity to start after spending the first three months of the season locked into a foreign role in the bullpen, Smith said it was all fine.
“But I’m really trying not to make too much of it,” he said.
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And he didn’t. The right-hander struck out four Twins in the Royals’ loss, surrendered seven hits and was charged with four runs in a no-decision here on Wednesday. Smith stuck with the plan he was given and threw 73 percent strikes in 71 pitches over 3 1/3 innings. He threw a fastball that maxed out around 96 mph and spun a curveball that generated six called strikes and three swinging strikes, according to MLB.com’s Statcast system.
The outing provided a bit of relief for the Royals, who just placed starting pitcher Ian Kennedy back on the disabled list because of a left oblique strain. Right now, Danny Duffy is the only rotation member left standing from the opening day lineup the Royals assembled. Of other four, Jason Hammel was jettisoned to the bullpen this week, Jakob Junis is nursing stiffness in his lower back with hopes of returning after next week’s All-Star break, Eric Skoglund is rehabbing a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in Arizona and Kennedy’s return date is unknown.
The start, of course, also provided relief for Smith.
“A year ago today, I didn’t think that I would be able to throw a baseball without breaking my arm,” Smith said on Tuesday.
And if you know Smith at all, you know his words aren’t trite exaggeration.
Drafted in the 14th round out of Oklahoma by the Padres in 2011, Smith rocketed through the farm system and earned his first major-league call-up as an emergency starter in 2013.
He had three stints with San Diego that year and they weren’t all memorable. He compiled a 6.44 ERA in 36 1/3 innings spanning seven starts and three relief outings. He posted a 1.65 WHIP and allowed 21 walks.
Yet he managed to strike out 46 batters in those 10 games, wielding a mid-90s fastball and running up his four-seamer to 97 mph like he has throughout his pro career.
Just as he was starting to figure things out at the major-league level — called back into the Padres rotation when rosters expanded in September, he allowed two or fewer runs in three of his last four starts that season — Smith’s progress was derailed.
He only made two starts in 2014, sidelined by a forearm injury. That December, he went to the Rays in a three-team trade that sent former Royals prospect Wil Myers to San Diego and tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in April 2015 before he could make a start in the Rays’ organization.
Finally cleared to rehab, Smith sustained a right elbow fracture that required surgery and forced him to miss the entire 2016 season.
After all the setbacks, Smith returned to the mound in 2017 and posted a 2.40 ERA in 12 starts and one relief appearance across three minor-league levels. He struck out 56 batters in 56 1/3 innings and held opponents to a .198 average.
The potent fastball was back.
Gene Watson, the Royals’ director of professional scouting, saw it when Smith made his last Class AAA start in Lawrenceville, Ga., against the Gwinnett Braves. Smith went 5 2/3 scoreless innings and struck out six while allowing two hits and two walks.
“He had a good head about him,” Watson said. “He was a guy that — well, it was really good time. He was healthy and throwing the ball well.”
Knowing the Rays had depth in pitching and were unlikely to protect Smith on their 40-man roster, the Royals’ scouting machine churned its gears and put together an action plan. Scouts watched every start Smith made in the Arizona Fall League. They were struck by how he regularly overwhelmed left- and right-handed hitters with his change-up and decided to pursue him in December’s Rule 5 Draft.
Back home in Tyler, Tex., Smith was listening to the draft broadcast. He knew from his agent that clubs had inquired about him, so it was only a matter of time before he’d get another chance to crack a major-league roster.
He wound up with the Royals, who sent cash considerations to the Mets so they would select him with the sixth overall pick. It was the same process the Royals hacked to get the Reds to choose Keller with their fifth pick.
The moves proved prescient. With a pair of Rule 5 acquisitions, the Royals landed two pitchers who exceeded expectations in the bullpen and found spots in the starting rotation of a club on pace for a franchise record in losses.
And Smith finally received the opportunity to resume a major-league career put on hold more than three years ago.
“I had so much doubt for so many years (wondering) if I could even do it while being healthy, or that I was good enough to do it,” said Smith, who has a 5.83 ERA in 41 2/3 innings this year and is the ninth pitcher to make a start for the Royals this year. “Basically for five years I wasn’t able to get back on a major-league mound. I would say that’s the most special thing for me. Being able to put on this Royals jersey and play in a major-league game is something I don’t take for granted.”