How Giants closer Will Smith came back from Tommy John as an All-Star

How Giants closer Will Smith came back from Tommy John as an All-Star

SAN FRANCISCO -- The final game of the 2016 NLDS is one the Giants would prefer to forget, but as Will Smith worked his way back to a big league mound for over a year, he tried to remember what that pain felt like. 

Smith was one of five relievers who tried and failed to get the series back to Chicago, with the group combining to allow four runs and blow the lead Matt Moore handed to the bullpen in that infamous Game 4. Smith was the fourth of the five to pitch that night, and he ended up being the one charged with a loss that really fell on the entire bullpen, an Achilles heel for that 2016 team. The next spring, his first with the Giants, Smith was told he needed Tommy John surgery. 

"That was the last game I pitched in, so that was kind of some motivation, too, during rehab," Smith said of Game 4. "You think you're tired and this and that, and you're like, 'Well, your last game you were the losing pitcher, Will. I think you're fine. Get this last set in. Get this last rep in. You're fine.' There was definitely some motivation there."

Whatever was used to push Smith through the tedious and long days in the gym and trainer's room worked. He has returned as a closer, one of the best relievers in the National League, and, for the first time, an All-Star. As he recalled the journey on The Giants Insider Podcast last week, Smith admitted all of this has surprised him. "I never thought this was possible," he said. 

Throughout a rough first half for the Giants, there never seemed to be any other answer. Smith was a no-brainer All-Star selection. He’s 23 for 23 in save opportunities and carries a 1.98 ERA and 0.79 WHIP. Smith has 53 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings and has walked just eight batters, and his rate of 13.1 strikeouts-per-nine is the best of his career. 

The increased strikeout rate has come in part because of an uptick in stuff. He throws his slider nearly 40 percent of the time and opponents are batting just .100 off it, with two extra-base hits. Smith is actually throwing his fastball two-tenths of a mile per hour harder than he did before surgery, and the slider is harder, too. 

As he talks about being better than he was before surgery, Smith often recalls a conversation he had in the spring of 2017. He had just been told that he would need Tommy John surgery and was glumly digesting the news when Buster Posey walked into the trainer's room at Scottsdale Stadium. Posey told Smith his responsibility to the rest of the team was to get better while he was sidelined, and Smith took it to heart. 

That meant attacking the weight room and his cardio work for three to four hours a day, six days a week. It meant taking advantage of the fact that he wouldn't have to save his arm for a game and going through set after set of shoulder workouts. 

"When I was in there I was trying to physically crawl out of the weight room every single day," he said. "If we had legs that day I wanted to be as sore as possible that afternoon -- same thing with the upper body. That's all I had to do that day, that's all I was really thinking of. At the end of the day, I could get my mind off of it and I knew I'd put in my work and it was easier for me, I guess, to get away from it."

Smith's body was noticeably transformed when he returned, and the 29-year-old said he's now in the best shape of his life. The Giants have pushed him hard at times in the first half -- he pitched seven times in 11 days during one June stretch and picked up six saves -- but Smith has always responded

That production will keep Smith from getting a true midseason break, but he's thrilled to be going to Cleveland. His first win came there in 2012 when he was a young starter for the Kansas City Royals, and this past offseason Smith and some friends visited to watch his hometown Falcons take on the Browns. 

That day ended with a Falcons loss and Smith jumping into a frigid Lake Erie to pay off a bet. The trip this time should be much more enjoyable.

[RELATED: Giants' Madison Bumgarner trade return 'not going to be great']

"You think back to being knocked out for the whole year," Smith said. "Just to be able to call yourself an All-Star at the halfway point -- two years after that -- it's kind of something I never really expected, honestly." 

MLB rumors: Giants' Madison Bumgarner trade return 'not going to be great'

MLB rumors: Giants' Madison Bumgarner trade return 'not going to be great'

If you're hoping that the Giants get back a franchise-changing package of prospects in a trade for ace Madison Bumgarner, we've got bad news for you.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic and Fox Sports had this to say on Monday:

"I do expect that he will be traded," Rosenthal said of Bumgarner a few hours before the 2019 MLB Home Run Derby in Cleveland. "I do expect that he will bring a return similar to what the Rangers got for Yu Darvish a couple of years ago. It's not going to be great. He's a potential free agent. Two months of Madison Bumgarner. You're not getting the world for him."

Back in 2017, Texas traded Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers for infielder/outfielder Willie Calhoun, pitcher A.J. Alexy and infielder Brendon Davis.

At the time of that trade, only Calhoun was considered a highly-touted prospect. He entered the 2017 season as the No. 92 overall prospect in the game according to Baseball America. The 24-year-old has gotten brief cups of coffee in three seasons with Texas, but has yet to establish himself.

Alexy and Davis, both currently 21 years old, are still in the minors and aren't having much success.

Darvish finished the season with the Dodgers and then signed a six-year, $126 million contract with the Chicago Cubs.

Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is hoping Rosenthal is wrong and that he can bring back two or three high-level prospects that will help the team's rebuild.

On Monday morning, Rosenthal reported through league sources that the Astros, Twins, Braves and Brewers are among the teams with interest in acquiring Bumgarner from the Giants.

Back in May, Rosenthal reported that Bumgarner has eight teams on his no-trade list, and Houston, Atlanta and Milwaukee are on it. Minnesota is not.

With every passing day, we get closer to the July 31 trade deadline. We'll soon find out what Zaidi is able to get in return for Bumgarner, if he trades him at all.

MLB rumors: Giants-Twins Madison Bumgarner trade chatter ‘premature’

MLB rumors: Giants-Twins Madison Bumgarner trade chatter ‘premature’

It's possible that Madison Bumgarner made his last start for the Giants on Saturday at Oracle Park.

Charley Walters, a columnist for The Pioneer Press in Minnesota, reported that the Twins are "moving closer to a trade with the Giants for left-handed starter Madison Bumgarner."

Don't get too worked up just yet.

Darren Wolfson, a sports reporter for KSTP-TV in Minnesota, isn't ready to say a deal between the Giants and the Twins is close.

Bumgarner is the Giants' biggest trade chip, and he's expected to fetch them a haul of prospects before the July 31 trade deadline. A deal this far away from that deadline would be a surprise, though, as the team might want to wait longer for more suitors and richer offers.

The Twins aren’t one of the eight teams on Bumgarner's no-trade list, so that would make it easier for the Giants to facilitate a trade with Minnesota, which has surprised everyone this season and owned the best record in baseball through Saturday.

In 14 starts this season, 29-year-old Bumgarner has a 3.83 ERA and struck out 84 batters in 87 innings.

[RELATED: Will Smith remains focused as trade rumors swirl]

With the Giants in last place in the NL West, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi could start trading off his valuable pieces to restock the farm system. Along with Bumgarner, you can expect veteran relievers Will Smith, Tony Watson and Sam Dyson to be traded by the deadline.