After Wednesday’s win over the San Diego Padres, Giants lefty Will Smith stared at the tattered file folders in his hand. Held together with layers of worn athletic tape and glossy red duct tape, the two folders and the pages inside were his constant companions over the last 13 months.
He leafed through the pages in the more forlorn-looking of the two, bending back one of the metal prongs, held together with masking tape.
“This thing got reconstructive surgery, too,” Smith said. “We both did.”
The folders contained Smith’s daily routines, from stretching to shoulder workouts to spine mobility exercises, as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. As he completed each day’s page, he’d move it from one folder to the other. After his first Major League outing in 568 days on Wednesday, he had a plan for those folders once the team got to Atlanta.
“I’ll probably try to burn them with the trainers or something, some sort of ceremony with the trainers to tell them thank you,” he said.
Smith also had other, less flammable plans for his return to his home state. The ball he used to strike out Eric Hosmer to end the seventh inning against the Padres was already earmarked for his mother and father. There was a family cookout at Smith’s childhood home slated for the off day on Thursday. If any of his teammates wanted to show up, Smith was more than willing to give them a bed at his offseason home, 10 minutes away in Sharpsburg.
“We all kind of knew this going on through this whole process that May 1 would be the activation day, but it ended up being May 2,” Smith said. “… We just kind of treated it like a normal day at the park.”
Smith’s 20-pitch outing, though, had the feeling of a first Major League appearance. As he bounded up the dugout steps and onto the field Wednesday morning, Smith grasped the hand of assistant hitting coach Ruck Schu and smiled broadly.
“I finally feel like a big leaguer,” Smith said. “It’s been a long time.”
After the game, longtime Giants equipment manager Mike Murphy handed Smith the day’s official lineup card. Another staffer came around to hand him the ball he used to end the inning, placed in an acrylic cube and neatly labeled with Smith’s name, the opponent, the date, and Smith’s pitching line: “1.0 IP, 2 K’s, 1 BB”.
“His first strikeout, I almost threw it out of the game like it was his debut,” said catcher Nick Hundley. “That was just one of those things where I didn’t think about it.”
Smith had pitched six seasons in the Major Leagues before taking the loss in Game 4 of the 2016 NLDS against the Chicago Cubs, his last big-league game.
After feeling discomfort in his elbow during Spring Training in 2017, Smith took a week off. In his second outing back, on March 20, 2017 against the Chicago White Sox, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament. Ten days later, Dr. Neal ElAttrache performed Tommy John surgery in Los Angeles.
Then, it was off to Arizona, where Smith worked with physical therapist Frank Perez. Over the next 12 months, Smith shuttled between Scottsdale and San Francisco, working with Perez and Tony Reale.
“You work out six days a week, you’ve got shoulder work every day,” Smith said. “You don’t have to worry about playing every day, at night, so you just crush yourself during rehab and try to get as strong as you can, as better as you can, so you come back with, I think, a new body, for sure.”
When he threw on the side this spring, Hundley thought he was ahead of schedule.
“It looked like he was throwing 100,” he said. “… I thought, from his work in spring training, once games started and everything got going, I thought his stuff was really electric and live.”
After seven rehab appearances between High-A San Jose and Triple-A Sacramento, Smith’s repertoire — a 94-mph fastball, a wipe-out slider and a dipsy-do, swing-and-miss curve — was back.
“Tony and all those guys in that room have done an unbelievable job to make sure every box has been checked off, and we don’t miss any steps,” Smith said.
When Smith finished the inning by using a slider down and away to strike out Hosmer — a man he knows well from their time together in the Kansas City Royals organization — he slapped his glove on his right thigh, and pumped his fist as Hundley tossed him the ball.
“He gives us another really good left-hander to help out late in the ballgame,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “It’s only going to get better with him.”
Back in the locker room, he looked down at his travel bag, with the ball, set atop the lineup card and those two old folders. Under his pitching line, printed on the cube, he noticed a final note: “Eric Hosmer Strikes Out Swinging.”