Before Braves outfielder Mallex Smith first met Nationals starter Joe Ross, he stepped into the batter's box to face him on a backfield in Arizona when both were prospects in the San Diego Padres organization.
Smith had seen Ross around the clubhouse, as the right-hander was there nursing a shoulder injury. Smith once passed him in the trainers room when Ross had his headphones on. He was playing a game on his phone, so Smith kept walking.
Now here he was, facing a former first round pick in Ross who throws a fastball in the mid-90s and a lethal slider. On this particular day, Smith thought it was a good chance to work on bunting. But Ross wanted to face a live hitter, not one who was bunting, and grew frustrated.
"He likes to say that he couldn't throw strikes because I was bunting. But I'm trying to bunt. I've gotta work on my game, too," Smith recalled.
Afterwards they returned to the clubhouse and found themselves sitting next to each other. They didn't speak a word, they just sat there.
"So, he's sitting next to me," Smith explained. "And somebody came up to him and said 'oh, you did good. You threw good.' Then he starts talking and I look at him like, 'dude, you speak English this whole time and you hadn't said nothing to me?' I thought he was a Latin."
Little did they know that moment would spark a friendship that four years later has been maintained through rooming together as Padres prospects to now as members of rival teams in the NL East.
"We've been like brothers ever since," Smith said. "We just developed a relationship that was sustained from when we met each other."
"He's one of my closest friends," Ross added. "He's just one of those guys that you get along with really well. You just fit together. From Day 1 we've been really good friends."
And, as fate would have it, Ross got to be there for Smith's major league debut, as an injury to Braves leadoff hitter Ender Inciarte prompted Atlanta to call Smith up for Monday's game in Washington. Ross actually picked Smith up at Reagan National Airport on Sunday night.
"It just so happened to be right before they came here, so I picked him up at the airport that night. I've seen him basically every night after the games," Ross said. "I'm pretty close with his family. I got to hang out with them and stuff. It was exciting hearing him called up and then getting to actually see his first hit was been really fun."
Ross and Smith were teammates in short-season with the Eugene Emeralds in 2012. They then lived together in 2013 when they played for the Low-A Fort Wayne TinCaps. They also lived together in spring training.
Ross and Smith spent loads of time together as roommates both at home and on the road. And, like most young ballplayers, they dreamed of the big leagues.
"Especially during low-A when we were roommates, we'd always talk about getting called up," Ross said. "I don't know how many times we talked about getting called up, if we'd play on the same team or if we'd ever play against each other."
Ross and Smith were both traded away from the Padres on the same day, on Dec. 19, 2014, but in separate deals and to separate teams. Ross landed in Washington in a three-team trade that centered around Trea Turner - who also played with Smith at Fort Wayne - and Wil Myers. Smith got shipped to Atlanta in the Justin Upton deal.
The two best friends were no longer teammates and may never be again. But, in both landing in the NL East, the chance was there for them to be rivals in the majors.
And getting traded to the Nats and Braves has caused them to cross paths several times in the year-and-a-half since. They faced each other in Triple-A as members of Syracuse and Gwinnett in Ross' first start after the All-Star break last summer.
They then met up in Atlanta where the Nats began their season. On the off-day, Smith came up from Gwinnett to hang out for the night.
"When he was leaving he was like 'oh, I'm sure I'll see you when you're back in Atlanta or something,'" Ross said. "Next thing you know it's five or six days later and he gets called up [to debut in D.C.]."
"This is actually a big moment for both of us," Smith added. "When he got called up he called me just ecstatic. Now for me to finally get called up and we get to play against them? He got to see my first day, which was pretty awesome."
Ross and Smith described their relationship as one of both positive reinforcement and a little trash-talking here and there.
"He doesn't take himself too seriously. That's the best dynamic of our relationship," Smith explained. "If I thought he wasn't doing good, I could talk trash to him. And if he wasn't doing good, he would talk trash to me. We can bounce back off each other."
Ross and Smith did not face each other in this series, as Ross was not lined up to start against the Braves despite their four games in town. They will likely lock horns at some point later this season, but until then it will just be talk.
"If you let him tell it, I just missed out on going like 0-for-4 with four Ks," Smith joked.
Ross will also tell you that he once beat Smith in a foot race. Smith is known for his speed as a guy who once had 88 steals in 120 games in the minors in 2014. But, as Ross swears, he won the 90-foot race on the outfield grass. A Padres trainer can attest.
Whenever they get the chance, it will be a fun dynamic between Ross and Smith to battle each other as best friends on rival teams. And once they step in between the lines, they won't be taking it easy on each other.
"It's coming soon and that's going to be exciting," Smith said. "He's my friend off the field, but on the field I don't know him."