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.
"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."