Smoker Thrust Into Grown-Up Situation

Josh Smoker, who might have faced Georgetown wearing a Clemson uniform, instead was donning his major league digs when he threw two scoreless innings.
Josh Smoker, who might have faced Georgetown wearing a Clemson uniform, instead was donning his major league digs when he threw two scoreless innings. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 28 -- Here, in a single two-second snippet, is an indication of exactly where Josh Smoker fits in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse. As he stood at his locker and talked about the players he shared the room with and admired, he spoke of, "guys I grew up watching, like Dmitri Young, Ryan Zimmerman."

There is no one else in Washington's major league clubhouse this spring who can, with a straight face, say he grew up watching Ryan Zimmerman. He is 23 and broke into the majors in September 2005. So in that regard, Smoker stands alone. At this point last year, he was shuffling between classes at Calhoun (Ga.) High. At this point last year, he could throw a fastball right down the middle of the plate and be fairly confident he would blow away any hitter.

Now he is 19, and he is the youngest player in this major league camp. His job consists, mainly, of shutting up, listening and not complaining when the veteran pitchers slap him upside the head, part of a game they play, one to which he is just learning the rules.

And early Thursday afternoon, he stood on the mound at Space Coast Stadium wearing a Nationals uniform, holding a ball in his left hand, staring in at his first live hitter of the spring. Jason Bergmann, a right-hander almost ensured a spot in the Washington rotation, preceded Smoker with two clean innings. Smoker's standing, though, was a little different.

"We were talking in the dugout," Manager Manny Acta said, "about how he would be a freshman for their team."

Thursday's opponent: Georgetown University. Smoker's line: Two innings pitched, two hits allowed, one walk and three strikeouts, and a significant sigh of relief.

"I was trying to work on my command, keeping the ball down," Smoker said afterward. "I was working mainly on my changeup. That's the pitch I have to get to where I want it. And as of right now, it's not where I want it."

He said all this quite seriously and professionally, as if he had listened in on the interviews of veterans around him. The Nationals, indeed, want Smoker to begin to establish his fastball and not rely so heavily on his curve -- a typical approach for an amateur pitcher -- then mix in the change.

But the big picture for him has nothing to do with how he threw the ball against the Hoyas in what became a 15-0 Nationals victory, one that filled a gap in the schedule between regular Grapefruit League games. Smoker's appearance with the major leaguers -- one that likely won't last more than another week or so -- is so the organization can get a feel for one of its better prospects, and Smoker can get a feel for how major leaguers prepare themselves.

"The results don't matter," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "It's what I see in his fastball, what I see in his composure, all his actions. I've never seen the kid pitch in competition. Whether it's a college game or whether it's an intrasquad or regular exhibition game, I'm still looking for the same things. And we take that, and compare it to where he needs to be."

Had things gone differently for Smoker, he might have faced the Hoyas wearing a college jersey some day. After going 13-0 with a 1.24 ERA and 152 strikeouts in 73 innings for Calhoun as a senior, he was drafted by the Nationals with the first "sandwich pick" between the first and second rounds of last year's draft -- a pick received as compensation for losing slugger Alfonso Soriano to free agency. He had accepted a scholarship offer to Clemson, but a day before the Aug. 15 deadline to sign draft picks, he agreed to terms with the Nationals on a $1 million bonus, and he joins Ross Detwiler and Jack McGeary as promising left-handers from the 2007 draft.

The decision to sign started Smoker on his path here, through two starts in the New York-Penn League (lasting four innings with a 4.50 ERA), then three weeks in instructional league, then an offseason back in Calhoun.

"I'm used to the small-town life in the offseason," he said.

But at some point during that offseason in his home town -- where "everybody knows everybody," he said -- he started to get itchy. Gradually, he grew angst-ridden.

"I was a nervous wreck for about a week before I came down here," he said. "I had ulcers in my mouth. The whole nine yards."

Which was apparent to anyone who knows him well.

"What's funny is, he gets quiet when he's nervous," said his father, Mike. "When you're asking him questions, you get these one-word answers, like, 'Yeah.' It makes it kind of frustrating because you want to know what he's feeling, but he's nervous and he won't say anything. So you let him go, and you let him do what he knows he has to do."

Smoker appears to know what he has to do here, though at first, "I had no clue." Veteran reliever Jon Rauch led him from field to field on the first day, and several players said Smoker has fit in well in the clubhouse.

"He has a better idea than most 19-year-olds," lefty Mike Bacsik said.

Thursday, though, "at the beginning he was kind of a little bit rattled," Acta said. His first hitter was, after all, older than he: Georgetown first baseman Dan Capeless. The sophomore is 20, and he stroked a double.

From there, Smoker was fine. And afterward, he met his parents for lunch, his first day playing with major leaguers done.

"He's always been mature for his age," said his mother, Debbie, "and he's always liked to hang with the adults."

Spring training, then, is no different.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company