After 569 days, Will Smith finally returns to big league mound: ‘It took a village'

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Left-hander Will Smith is a Falcons fan. Head trainer Dave Groeschner is a Patriots fan. One of them watched in joy as his team overcame a 28-3 deficit in the Super Bowl a year ago. The other watched his party clear out in 15 minutes, and then shortly thereafter -- on the 28th day of the third month of 2017 -- had his career put on hold by Tommy John surgery.

Let's just say the tedious shoulder exercises and lonely conditioning sprints in the outfield weren't always the worst part of Smith's 13 months of rehab.

"The opposite of 28-3," Smith said, shaking his head as he recalled the day his pitching elbow was sliced open. "Groesch wore me out."

But Groeschner was also waiting at the end of the tunnel. Smith took the mound in the seventh inning of a 9-4 win over the Padres and pitched a scoreless frame. It was his first big league appearance in 569 days, and he couldn't wipe the smile off his face as he walked off the field. Groeschner was waiting in the dugout and he gave Smith a huge hug. Then, the left-handed acquired at the deadline in 2016 went back to the trainer's room and had a similar moment with Tony Reali, the physical therapist who helped guide him through the long comeback process.

"If those guys didn't show up and work hard every day, there's no way we would be here," Smith said. "It took a village for sure."

All involved watched with smiles on their faces as Smith warmed up. His first big league pitch since Oct. 11, 2016 was a 93 mph strike on the inside corner to A.J. Ellis. Smith walked Ellis, but then blew a 94 mph fastball past Travis Jankowski for a strikeout. Manny Margot got 92 mph in on the hands and grounded out to third. 

The big test was Eric Hosmer, who had terrorized Giants pitching all series. Smith and Hosmer came up together in Kansas City's minor league system, and the last time they faced off Hosmer put down a bunt. As Hosmer dug in, Smith smiled at him.

"It was one of those looks, like, 'Please don't bunt,'" he said. 

Smith went 3-2 on Hosmer before striking him out on a slider in the dirt. The 20th pitch of Smith's comeback was scooped by Nick Hundley and then tossed back to the pitcher as he walked off the mound. 

"It was awesome," Smith said. "You sit out almost a year and a half, just to be able to play baseball again was a pretty incredible feeling."

Hundley said Smith's stuff was "electric and live." Manager Bruce Bochy reiterated what an important piece Smith will be moving forward, and that's more true Wednesday than it was Sunday, when Smith returned to the big league team. The Giants are already without Madison Bumgarner, Mark Melancon and Joe Panik, and now Johnny Cueto very well could be headed for the same diagnosis that Smith got in his first spring with the Giants. 

Cueto will see Dr. James Andrews in the coming days, and while the Giants have yet to say anything about the state of his ligament, sources indicated that there is not much optimism. The Giants seem to be hoping that Cueto is given an alternative to Tommy John surgery, but as Smith found out when his elbow first started barking, that is rare. 

Regardless, Cueto is expected to miss extended time, and Bumgarner is at least a month away. This is a team that will need to find a new path, and in that respect, Wednesday was encouraging. The lineup continued to show depth, hammering Clayton Richard and clinching a 7-3 homestand and fourth consecutive series victory. Smith was part of the group that closed out Derek Holland's first win with the Giants, and you can bet Bochy will try to shorten as many games as he can with a rotation that now includes three young pitchers, Holland, and Jeff Samardzija, who is still trying to push past shoulder issues that delayed his season debut. 

Smith is ready to join Strickland, Watson, Dyson and the rest in making life easier for the manager. But first, he has some business to take care of. The ball that Hundley threw him was tucked into a travel bag and Smith intends to give it to his parents. He also kept the lineup card, which he threw into a bag that included two well-worn manila folders. They were filled with rehab schedules that Smith followed six days a week from March 28, 2017 through his triumphant return. He no longer needs them.

"I might try to burn these," he said, laughing. "Maybe with the trainers."

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