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Smith fitting in with Brewers

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March 5, 2014

In Kansas City, pitcher Will Smith didn't get to choose his intro music. So of course, the team blared Will Smith jams through the speakers.

“Summertime” was a common track. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song, yeah, he's heard that, too.

And when “Getting' Jiggy Wit It” nah-nah-nah'd through the stadium, it was usually a prelude to trouble.

Not for batters. For Smith.

“I just get hammered. I just get pounded on the mound,” Smith said. “I try to stay away from that one.

“I'd get crushed. I'd get crushed.”

Squeaky-clean rap lyrics aside, Smith is a new face in the Milwaukee Brewers' bullpen this spring. Built like an NFL tight end, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound lefty was acquired in December from the Royals for outfielder Norichika Aoki. At the time, he expected to compete for the fifth spot in Milwaukee's rotation. The team signed Matt Garza, so now he's transitioning.

The 24-year-old first pitched out of the bullpen last season. Throwing for one inning at a pressure-packed moment takes a temperament, a few “screws loose,” Smith said.

In Milwaukee, Smith heard veterans pick songs for first-year players. Maybe they should avoid the irony entirely.

Will Smith's potential role screams Avenged Sevenfold, not Will Smith.

“Last year being my first year in the bullpen in the big leagues, there's a few guys out there with a few screws loose,” Smith said. “There are some crazy guys out there. But you kind of need that. One on one. Man to man. A 'Here it is, try to hit it' type of attitude.

“There's a few special people that can do that.”

Like John Rocker. An Atlanta Braves fan growing up in Newnan, Ga., Smith grew up watching the bombastic, often repugnant closer. Forget screws. He had a loose transmission.

Said Smith, “You have to be a little crazy out there.”

Or like Greg Holland, his Royals teammate who was second in the majors with 47 saves last season. When Holland walked to the mound, Smith said, you knew he couldn't care less what song was playing.

“He was so focused, he was so determined on winning that game, he was crazy,” Smith said. “Once the game was over, he'd snap back right into Greg, you'd go play cards with him and he was fine.”

The mild-mannered Smith says it's a “different story” when the lights come on. He flips the switch.

And any reliever in any bullpen needs this. Every night, the Brewers' Rob Wooten explains, your number could be called. You're on edge. Waiting. For up to 162 games, there's no room for relaxation.

While throwing 100 pitches in a game “sounds awful” to Wooten, starting pitchers have a different workflow.

“In the bullpen,” he said, “every day at the park you've got to be ready to go. You've got to have a confidence about you. You can't be intimidated when you come into a big situation in front of thousands of people. Us as relievers, we don't have the luxury of coming into a clean inning, without the bases loaded and nobody out.

“You have to have a screw loose to handle that, for sure.”

Long term, manager Ron Roenicke sees a “big, strong guy” who could be a starter. The southpaw could do both, he said. For now, he wants Smith to pitch himself into a role. Over two Cactus League appearances so far (two innings), Smith has allowed six hits while striking out four.

He bounced back and forth between the majors and AAA-Omaha each of the previous two seasons, going 8-10 with 102 strikeouts in 123 innings in Kansas City. Thirteen years younger, Smith spoke to Royals veteran Bruce Chen as much as possible. He was a sponge. This year, he has another veteran teammate in Kyle Lohse.

Starter. Bullpen. Smith tries to downplay the mental approach to each. To Smith, all pitchers in the clubhouse are “starters.” Some simply pitch longer than others.

Still, the Garza signing bumped him back. Milwaukee could use Smith as a midgame presence.

He insists he wasn't disappointed at all in how the offseason dominoes fell.

“Especially being up and down so much last year,” Smith said, “any opportunity to be on the team—and do what they want you to do—I wasn't disappointed when that happened. I was excited when they signed Garza. That's a big signing for us. That's awesome. He adds depth to the rotation.

“He's a good pitcher, so when you add him to the other four, it's going to be a solid rotation. If they bump me back, so be it. It's fine.”

Roenicke wouldn't mind getting the Will Smith who starred in, um, Independence Day.

A year ago, as July 3 dripped into July 4 through a rain delay, Smith got the call against Cleveland. And of course, he pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings to earn the win.

More Will Smith references. More eye rolls.

Said Smith, “I've heard them all. Every single one of them.”

Maybe “Gettin' Jiggy Wit It” should be banned at Miller Park, but there's room for Will Smith.



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