OAKLAND — The only person in the A’s clubhouse who didn’t seem to feel bad for Chris Smith on Tuesday night was Chris Smith.
The right-hander, making just his second start in a big league career that began in 2008, got robbed of his first victory in nine years when his bullpen couldn’t hold a ninth-inning lead in a 4-3 loss to Tampa Bay. But after talking to him, it was clear that his smile couldn’t have been bigger, his humor any more genuine and good-natured, if he had actually pocketed the ‘W’.
“It’s like ‘Whoo! What’s going on here?’” Smith said. “This whole thing has just been an unbelievable ride and I don’t want it to end.”
It’s easy to see why manager Bob Melvin sees value in his young pitchers being exposed to Smith, a 36-year-old who went back to college six years ago thinking his career was over, then threw for two independent league teams in working his way back to a major league farm system.
On July 8, he became the oldest pitcher in A’s history ever to make his first career start. In a second start Tuesday in place of Jharel Cotton, Smith limited Tampa Bay to three hits over seven innings. Santiago Casilla retired the first two batters of the top of the ninth before allowing a Rays go-ahead rally that left Smith with about as cruel a no-decision as one could imagine given the circumstances.
That seemed the furthest thing from his mind.
Smith said he had 22 people in attendance at the Coliseum. He had family fly in from Des Moines, Iowa.
“We planned on going to their house with (Triple-A) Nashville,” Smith said. “They found out I got called up and they said, ‘OK, we’re going to you now.’”
An aunt traveled down from Redding. Other loved ones came from Hesperia, where Smith lives. His sister, who lives in Salt Lake City, found out he was starting and drove all through the night to get to Oakland, then was on her way back after the game.
Smith’s only victory came in relief in the second outing of his career with the Boston Red Sox. He pitched two innings and was credited with a victory over Arizona on June 24, 2008.
Had he gotten Tuesday’s victory, Smith shared that “I was hoping … I didn’t get a shower of ketchup and mustard. I was gonna say ‘Guys, I got one of those, a long time ago, back in the first Bush administration.’”
What a memory it would have made for him and all is family and friends in attendance. It was setting up well too, with third baseman Matt Chapman making a couple of dazzling plays after his error in the second inning led to a Tampa Bay run.
“His history and everything, that’s awesome,” Chapman said. “That guy is easy to root for.”
After shortstop Marcus Semien snared a liner to end the top of the seventh, completing the longest outing Smith has had this season in the majors or minors, the pitcher walked off the mound with a grin on his face.
“Knowing my family was up there watching me was nice,” he said. “You gear up for the 6th, and you go out for the 7th and you complete the 7th. It’s like just an awesome feeling especially because I know I’m not supposed to be here doing this.”