Chris Smith’s ‘surreal’ baseball journey leads to Blue Jays mound

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TORONTO – The first stop in Chris Smith’s pro career lasted an inning. The second made it 3.1 frames. Team No. 3 in a last-ditch league took him on but offered nothing other than a per-appearance fee.

That led to a better gig, which in turn landed him in Australia, where he made enough of an impression to get a minor-league deal from the New York Yankees. A stress fracture in his forearm later, he got cut only to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays, with whom he completed the most unlikely of big-league ascents.

“It was pretty surreal,” Smith said after throwing a scoreless ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles in his debut during Tuesday’s 3-1 loss. “It’s something you dream about as a kid. You go from independent ball to where I am now, it’s something I hope that maybe other people can be inspired by.

“That run in (from the bullpen), it probably happened in what feels like five seconds. It was very surreal.”

Understandably so for the 28-year-old right-hander, who logged innings for the Crushers, Beach Bums, PupFish, Wild Things, Bandits, RiverDogs, A-ball Yankees, Thunder, A-ball Blue Jays, Gigantes, Fisher Cats and Bisons – that’s 12 teams in eight leagues since 2010 – before taking the Rogers Centre mound versus the Orioles.

“It’s a long way from Alamogordo, New Mexico, if anybody knows where that is,” said Smith. “It’s definitely humbling.”

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About 140 kilometres north of El Paso on the American border with Mexico, Alamogordo is where he resurrected his career with the White Sands PupFish of the Pecos League. He’s only the second player from that loop to reach the majors, following right-hander Jon Edwards, who pitched for the Texas Rangers in 2014.

Smith’s trajectory changed last season, when he started the year as the closer at double-A New Hampshire and struck out 76 batters in 57 innings. At triple-A Buffalo, he added five more Ks in 3.2 innings.

Last September, the Blue Jays recalled him after Joaquin Benoit was injured to serve as an extra arm, just in case one was needed, but he didn’t pitch in any games. This year at Buffalo he missed some time with elbow soreness but has since rebounded, getting recalled Tuesday after the Blue Jays designated Jason Grilli for assignment.

That made the experience a touch bittersweet for Smith.

“It’s tough to see (Grilli) go but I’m pretty happy to be here, as well,” said Smith.

“He’s someone that really inspired me through last year. I had a short time with him. He was just an incredible individual that really helped me to be in the position I’m in right now. It’s tough to see him go. At the same time, I wish him the best.”

Smith’s locker in the Blue Jays clubhouse is to the right of Grilli’s former stall. The veteran right-hander wrote, “Stay In The Fight” where his nameplate used to be before he left and managed to leave Smith with some more encouragement.

“He just told me he was happy to see my name when he came in to clear his stuff,” said Smith. “At the same time, I told him I was crushed to see him go. He was someone I was definitely looking forward to seeing. If I have half the career that man’s had, I’d say I had a pretty good one. I wish him nothing but the best because he’s been a big inspiration for me and someone I’ve been looking up to.”

Smith’s inning against the Orioles was mostly uneventful. He fell behind 2-0 to Joey Rickard before inducing a pop up, induced a fly ball by Paul Janish, surrendered a single to Craig Gentry before getting another pop up, this time from Manny Machado.

All in all, he threw 13 pitches, nine strikes, his fastball averaging 94.7 m.p.h. and topping out at 95.5.

“Every time you step on the mound, especially in your debut, you’re trying to control your emotions and you take deep breaths,” said Smith. “Spring training, getting your feet wet in major-league camp, is always good, but I don’t think anything matches your major-league debut. Coming in and taking the deep breaths, I’ve been talking to Pete (Walker, the Blue Jays pitching coach), making sure I control myself. If I got behind, try to get back after it.”

Smith’s family couldn’t get to Toronto in time for Tuesday’s game but planned to fly from Louisville, Ky., to Toronto on Wednesday, while his girlfriend is coming in from Boston. If called upon, he’ll be ready.

“I’ll a 100 per cent be available and if I throw three innings the next day. I’ll a 100 per cent be available,” said Smith. “The best ability is availability. That’s what I’m trying to be.”

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