SEATTLE — The ‘W’ did not go next to his name, and surely that didn’t matter one bit.
Chris Smith set a goal to give the A’s six innings Saturday in the biggest game of his professional career. He did that, and afterward exuded equal parts excitement, relief and, probably most importantly, a well-deserved sense of achievement.
The oldest pitcher in A’s history to ever make his first career start, the 36-year-old journeyman held Seattle to three runs over six innings, then watched his teammates rally late for a 4-3 victory at Safeco Field.
That closed the book on a day filled with anticipation and nerves for Smith, who five years ago walked away from pitching and re-enrolled at UC Riverside, figuring his playing days might be done. After bouncing around to two indy league baseball teams and eventually landing with the A’s in 2016 as a reliever, he was called upon for a spot start Saturday after Jharel Cotton went on the disabled list.
It was the 64th appearance of a major league career that began way back in 2008. When he walked off the mound having completed the sixth inning, Smith could finally exhale.
“I can go zero to 100 in the blink of an eye,” he said. “I had to slow myself down. It was a very good pat on the back at the end after getting that last out (of the sixth). I was like, ‘OK, that just happened.’”
The toughest part of Smith’s day seemed to come before he even took the mound. He admitted he couldn’t figure out how to pass the time before he went out to warm up. He even popped out to the dugout during batting practice, which most starters don’t do, and chatted with broadcaster Ray Fosse.
“He was bouncing around here a little bit (before the game),” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “There had to be some nerves and a lot of excitement, and which was more I’m not 100 percent sure. But once he got on the mound he did his thing. … I was really impressed from the first pitch of the game to the time we took him out.”
Afterward, the affable Smith took pride in his achievement and poked fun at himself too. For instance, the fourth-inning dribbler from Danny Valencia that Smith misplayed into an error, fumbling the ball and then falling to the ground.
“I always used to tease the guys at (Triple-A) Nashville that I was the best fielding pitcher,” he said. “Next thing you know I’m on ground and I was like, ‘This is not good.’”
He allowed Seattle to come back and tie the game twice, but he avoided the big inning, used his changeup when behind in counts and spotted a fastball that could hardly be called intimidating.
Asked about touching 88 miles per hour on the stadium gun, Smith cracked: “I hope my wife got a picture.”
First baseman Yonder Alonso, who hit his 20th homer, was impressed.
“He’s having so much fun enjoying the moment,” Alonso said. “He’s been through it all. He’s a lot of fun to play behind too. He pitches quick, he throws strikes.”
And he knows how to keep things in perspective. Smith knows this was a spot start, with the plan for Cotton to rejoin the A’s after the All-Star break if a blister on his thumb heals.
“That might be one and done,” he said with a big smile, “so I was really enjoying it.”