ST. LOUIS — Every day is Dec. 7, 2015.
The same sense of opportunity. The same need to prove himself all over again. The same anticipation for what’s to come.
Nearly a year and a half later, Carson Smith still feels the way he did the day he was traded to the Red Sox. He throws his bullpen sessions, does his rehab work, and waits for an honest-to-goodness second chance to make a first impression.
“Definitely still in that mode,” the sidelined reliever said. “Coming over here last year, you get an opportunity to come to a big-name team like this and hopefully have an impact, and it didn’t work out last year. And it was frustrating. I know the playoff chances and the opportunities they had last year were there, and it was frustrating not to be able to contribute with that.
“But here we are this year, getting near the end of this rehab process, and we’ve got all the talent in the world in this clubhouse, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it.”
Less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, with last year’s three Red Sox appearances basically long forgotten, Smith is throwing bullpens again. He thinks he’s a week or two away from facing hitters. Then a rehab assignment. Then back to a spot in the bullpen, quite possibly as the go-to set-up man in front of Craig Kimbrel.
David Price is making a minor league start tomorrow, Pablo Sandoval is about to start a rehab assignment of his own, and Smith now looks to be the third missing piece that could at last make the 2017 Red Sox whole again.
“When we acquired him, it was the vision or intent to build him late in the game,” manager John Farrell said. “We’ve got some work, obviously, to get him back to that point, but he can be a huge lift to this bullpen once he gets back to normal strength.”
Smith thinks he’s getting there. He’s throwing fastballs and changeups in his bullpens, and he’s adding sliders off flat ground. He’s still getting some of the feel back, but the early results have been encouraging.
“Velocity-wise, I don’t know where I’m at right now,” he said. “I haven’t thrown in front of a radar gun, but I feel good, and that’s the most important thing. Everybody says that I have live action on my ball, which is something I depend on.”
When the Red Sox traded for Smith, he’d just emerged as a late-inning force in Seattle. He made 70 appearances for the Mariners in 2015 and struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings. He struck out two in 22⁄3 innings with the Red Sox last year before needing the surgery May 24.
Recovery, he said, has been everything he expected and more (and more was not a good thing). It was long and frustrating, but it’s telling that Smith has a seat on the Red Sox charter and a locker in the visiting clubhouse, with a No. 39 jersey hanging on the bar.
He’s traveling as if he’s an active part of the team. Can’t say the same for Tyler Thornburg, the other supposed set-up man who’s rehab from shoulder soreness keeps hitting snags.
The Red Sox say they want Smith around because the big league training staff knows him, and the coaches want to see him first-hand, but Smith seems to notice a different benefit.
“Being with the team this past month has helped extremely,” he said. “Just being around the guys and watching them compete out there (has been) putting me in the game mode, not just rehab and getting my body back in the right shape. I’m excited to get out there.”
If Thornburg’s return is nowhere in sight, Smith stands out as the best bet to solidify a bullpen that’s cycled through the ups and downs of Matt Barnes, Heath Hembree and Joe Kelly as go-to right-handed relievers.
Seventeen months ago, Smith was waiting to assert himself with the Sox. He’s still waiting, but for the first time in a long time, there’s a light at the end of that tunnel.
“I’m always trying to make a splash out there,” Smith said. “Whether it’s a new team, same team, coming back from injury or not, I’m always trying to do my best and contribute as best I can. So, I’m always excited to get out there, no matter the circumstances. But it will be a little extra special after the 12- to 13-month grind.
“I definitely haven’t made a name for myself as a Boston Red Sox player right now. I’m excited to get out there and represent Boston and the Red Sox, and I’m ready to get going.”