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OC Register: Whicker: Ex-Angel Will Smith thriving in San Francisco’s bullpen

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LOS ANGELES – It’s just a coincidence that the Angels are importing huge shipments of Robitussin for their bullpen, while Will Smith steams deep into his second month of 2018 without a home run against his name.

“Don’t say that,” he yelped when it was brought up Sunday afternoon. “No comment.”

Smith was an Angel prospect until late July of 2010, when the Angels made one of those cover-all-the-bases deadline deals and traded him to Kansas City for infielder Alberto Callaspo. He was a starter then. He became a reliever with the Royals in 2013. Since then he has become of the sturdiest lefty relievers around. He’s with the Giants now, having survived a break for Tommy John surgery in 2017. Over the weekend he came to Dodger Stadium with all systems functioning..

Smith worked the seventh inning Sunday and struck out Cody Bellinger and Yasmani Grandal, then got Yasiel Puig on a fly ball to right.

Mark Melancon, ex-Dodger Tony Watson and Hunter Strickland took care of the rest. San Francisco’s 4-1 win broke a five-game win streak for the Dodgers. For the first time in June the Dodgers failed to hit a home run, although Nick Hundley and Brandon Belt hit long balls for the visitors.

On Saturday night Smith stared down Grandal and Max Muncy, struck them out, and arranged for Puig to pop out to second. For the season Smith has given up eight hits and five walks in 18-2/3 innings, with 24 strikeouts. The fastball is in the low to mid 90s and moves accordingly, and he has leaned on his slider more with each season.

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“That surgery was like my 100,000-mile checkup,” Smith said. “When I was ready to pitch again, the slider was still there.”

Smith was 20 but had already navigated his way to Triple-A Salt Lake. When Angels’ farm director Abe Flores came onto the field in batting practice and made a beeline for Smith, the kid didn’t know what to think.

“I thought I was in trouble,” Smith said. “It was the first time it had happened to me. But then guys started congratulating me. I asked them how come and they said it was a good thing. It’s not that the Angels didn’t want me, it’s that the Royals did.”

So it was easier to understand when Kansas City sent Smith to Milwaukee for outfielder Nori Aoki after the 2013 season. Smith pitched in a league-high 78 games in 2014 and then took the ball 76 times in 2015.

Nothing is harder to evaluate than the fluctuations of a long reliever. Over the past four seasons Bryan Shaw worked 80, 74, 75 and 79 games for Cleveland. The Rockies invested $25 million in Shaw for the next three seasons. Currently opponents are batting .325 against him.

Yet Shaw is the only reliever who remains in MLB’s top 10 in major league appearances from last year. The only three in the top 10 in both 2016 and 2017 were Shaw, Addison Reed and Felipe Vazquez.

When Smith got to Milwaukee he was sharing a bullpen with Francisco Rodriguez, the Angel hero of 2002 whose arm withstood 948 games and 437 saves. Rodriguez pitched until he was 35.

“K-Rod told me that I had to take care of my body every day,” Smith said. “He said I had to have a routine. Sure, it stinks to run every day or do all the other stuff I do, but that’s the only way I was going to have a long career. Keep it simple. And he was right.”

In August 2016, the Brewers sent Smith to the Giants in exchange for minor league pitcher Phil Bickford, a former first-round pick from Simi Valley, and catcher Andrew Suzac. Smith struck out 26 in 18 innings. But in spring training he found he couldn’t get his elbow loose. Pitchers know when the pistons aren’t firing.

Smith went for the surgery immediately ‘because I didn’t want to miss two years,” and returned to the majors last month.

“Almost everybody in our bullpen had gone through something like that,” Smith said. “The Giants even arranged my locker to be near those guys. So they were able to let me know exactly to what to expect. Again, if you do all the rehab like you’re supposed to you probably won’t have any problems.”

Workload? Only if you consider it work.

“I enjoy throwing a lot, pitching a lot,” Smith said. “The more you play, the more fun you have.”

He and his new elbow left for home. Sometimes an operation isn’t as chronic as a bullpen-wide cough.

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