DETROIT--All Drew Smyly wanted was to be a starting pitcher again. In his eyes he was not and never was meant to be a relief pitcher, confined to a couple of innings on a nightly basis. Yet, following the 2012 regular season Smyly was resigned to the bullpen for the postseason and then for the duration of the 2013 season.
He made the best of his situation and became known as the reliable constant for the Tigers. Smyly made a name for himself, and because of the results he produced, when the Doug Fister trade went down the Tigers turned to Smyly to fill the need of a fifth starter.
Smyly was understandably elated but after a year in the bullpen, two or even three innings of scoreless relief is not the same as a starting role. And going back to that can change the mindset and even the pitching ability of a pitcher. So when the Tigers left-handed pitcher made his debut on April 18, it should not have been surprising that he allowed four runs on eight hits and only lasted a little over three innings.
When the bar has been set so high by repeated performances of perfection, coming back to reality can sometimes be difficult. However, for Smyly it did not take long to adjust and as far back as January, Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones commented that he believed Smyly would quickly adjust to being back in a starting rotation.
"I do, I really do (believe Smyly would transition quickly) because it's something he's always done," Jones said. "He's always been a starter. I don't think it's going to be as tough a transition for him to go back to being a starter as it was going into the bullpen."
But not having a tough transition didn't mean there wouldn't be some bumps along the way. And after a rough debut, Smyly again struggled with his command on April 23 when he relied heavily on his fastball in the first inning against the Chicago White Sox. Of the first 30 pitches he threw, 22 were fastballs and his miscues in the first resulted in three hits, including a two-run home run by Jose Abreu.
Following the first inning of that evening however, Smyly's fastball all but disappeared. While he threw the fastball on occasion, for the most part Smyly threw just about everything except that pitch. And for the next five innings Smyly pitched to near perfection, allowing just three hits and a walk.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus commented on Smyly's second start of the season following the loss on April 23. "I thought he pitched very well. Despite the home run in the first he really settled down and got into a rhythm." It was a rhythm which carried him through five solid innings and continued when he took the mound for his third game of the season on Saturday.
Smyly showed significant improvement in his second start by demonstrating the ability to adjust to a situation on the spot and not allow one less-than-ideal inning to dictate the pace of his game. By game three Smyly had settled into a rhythm reflective of his performance in the bullpen and the result Saturday night was something straight out of a storybook.
Smyly's first inning on Saturday was heavily laden with fastballs, however the result was in direct contrast with his first inning on April 23. Not only had Smyly's command improved drastically and was present from the start, it was consistent and after just 16 pitches he delivered a quick 1-2-3 first inning.
Facing the Kansas City Royals Smyly was unhittable for 3 1/2 innings, and he delivered seven scoreless innings for the Tigers. He averaged 13 pitches per inning, striking out six and allowed a mere two hits. There were a couple of potential line drives that could have been trouble, but excellent defensive inning-ending catches by the Tigers' outfielders kept Smyly's scoreless record in the game intact.
It wasn't just that Smyly was efficient with his pitches Saturday night, but the way in which he delivered them showcased an effortless appearance. His slider and changeup were strong but it was his fastball that kept the Royals confused and unable to hit anything more than weak groundouts and popups.
"Smyly was outstanding. Pitch count wasn't a factor and he was throwing strikes," Ausmus told reporters after Saturday's game. "He seemed to be using all his pitches, which is important as a starter. He pitched really well."
In only three games Smyly went from struggling to make it through three innings to holding batters nearly hitless in his third appearance of 2014. While it may only be three games, the adjustments that Smyly made in that time showcases the pitching ability Smyly possesses, and he has done it with ease.
"I hope it showed everybody. To be honest, I'm kind of sick of the bullpen talk, that it's where I should go. I've been a starter my whole life," Smyly told reporters following the Tigers fourth consecutive win.
"I went to the bullpen last year to help the team. I'd want to do whatever they want, but I've always thought of myself as a starter, and I think they (Tigers) all think of me as a starter. Hopefully that'll put the talk to rest."
Smyly is the Tigers number five starting pitcher and he is not going back to the bullpen to be a reliever. While it is unlikely that every outing Smyly has will be as picturesque as Saturday's game, the fact remains that he is a dominant starting pitcher.
After patiently biding his time in the bullpen, Smyly has more than earned the right to be part of the Tigers core-five starting rotation. And there he will remain.