Closer Will Smith was presented with the Willie Mac award before the opener of the Giants final series of 2018 Friday at AT&T Park.
Named for Giants legend Willie McCovey, the award is given to the season’s most inspirational Giant as deemed by teammates, coaches, training staff and, in recent years, fans.
The inaugural award was given in 1980, McCovey’s final season on a ball field, to right fielder Jack Clark, who was present Friday night for the ceremony.
Smith came to San Francisco from the Brewers at the 2016 trade deadline, pitching 18-1/3 innings with 26 strikeouts and a 2.95 ERA and holding opponents to a .197 batting average against him. He also tossed 1-1/3 innings in that year’s National League Division Series in which he allowed one hit and no earned runs. But he fell to Tommy John surgery after the season and missed all of 2017.
After finding out he would need surgery he recalled that Buster Posey came to him as he sat in head trainer Dave Groeschner’s office feeling sorry for himself and offered him the encouragement he needed at that time:
“Buster came up to me and he was like, ‘Your responsibility to the team now is to get better.’ And I took it serious. That was a big moment.”
Smith said he also leaned on other bullpen dwellers like Hunter Strickland, Josh Osich and Mark Melancon who have undergone Tommy John and the grueling rehab process. And upon receiving the Willie Mac Award he acknowledged how meaningful the support he received from his fellow Giants was.
“To my teammates: I love those guys to death they’re awesome. They got me through a tough time last year [and] it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Smith said one of his first questions after being told he required Tommy John surgery is if he could do his rehab in San Francisco instead of Arizona. He was extremely grateful to find out that he could, and spent as much of the 2017 season as a cheerleader in the clubhouse and the dugout as possible.
“I know I wanted to be here. I couldn’t have gone to Arizona and not been around the guys. I love what I do. I love coming in here every day. I love playing with these guys every day. It’s just–it’s fun for me…for the most part they let me be around the guys [during my recovery] and that helped a ton.”
After over 18 months of recovery and rehab, Smith made a triumphant return to the bullpen this past May, throwing 23 innings from May 2 to July 27 allowing just four runs and holding batters to a .133 average.
Smith was cautiously optimistic upon his successful return earlier this summer and reserved most of the praise for coaches and trainers who helped him rehab:
“It feels good just glad to be back. [The positive results are] a nice sign. It just goes to show how much work the training staff put in to make sure we checked every box off. You gotta give them just as much credit, they made sure everything was good to go before they let me go.”
His work was far from overlooked by the Giants and when regular closer Hunter Strickland went down with a fractured hand in mid-June, it was Smith who eventually took over the role for the first time in his career earning his first save of the season June 29. Up to then he had one career save since making it to the big leagues with the Royals in 2012. This season he has 14, and in 52 innings he has 70 strikeouts, a 1.96 ERA and a WHIP of 0.885.
Bochy said he wasn’t at all surprised that Smith received the award, noting that he’s great teammate and put in an extraordinary amount of work to get back and contribute:
“He’s such a great guy in [the clubhouse] and [it’s] a great story on how he’s come back. He’s had a nice year for us, so [it’s] well deserved.”
Other former Willie Mac recipients who took part in Friday’s award ceremony included Darell Evans (1983), two-time Willie Mac Award-winner Mike Krukow (1985 and 1986) who emceed the event, Chris Speier (1987), Dave Dravecky (1989), Mike Felder (1992), Shawon Dunston (1996), Ellis Burks (2000), Mark Gardner (2001), Posey (2012), Hunter Pence (2013), Madison Bumgarner (2014), Brandon Crawford (2016) and Nick Hundley (2017).