The 25-year-old right-hander is 5 for 5 in save opportunities since becoming the Mariners’ fill-in closer, and the surge of ninth-inning energy he first felt coming out of the Safeco Field bullpen against Tampa Bay on June 6 is becoming addictive.

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Like a skydiver preparing to take a plunge, Carson Smith has started to crave the adrenaline kick that comes with closing baseball games.

The 25-year-old right-hander is 5 for 5 in save opportunities since becoming the Mariners’ fill-in closer, and the surge of ninth-inning energy he first felt coming out of the Safeco Field bullpen against Tampa Bay on June 6 is becoming addictive.

“The roar of the crowd was intense,” he said, recalling that first save. “It definitely got the goose bumps going. It’s still one of the most adrenaline-based jobs at this level, and I get to feed off that. I enjoy it, and right now I feel comfortable.”

Looking back further in his career, Smith felt a similar surge when he was cut from his junior-college team, a not-so-subtle nudge that helped fuel his rise to the major leagues.

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“That definitely lit a fire,” he said.

Growing up, Smith had a natural side-arm motion in his delivery that he stuck with throughout his high-school career in Midland, Texas. As a freshman at Grayson County College, however, he was asked to throw with a more traditional, over-the-top arm angle. The results, he said, were just “all right.” After the 2009 season, he was among a group of players told to move on, find another team.

He was committed to play for another junior college that summer before a friend helped him land a tryout with Texas State. He did enough to impress the pitching coach and land a spot on the team, and soon he switched back to his side-arm delivery. It worked: A starter in his two seasons at Texas State, he was twice named the Southland Conference Pitcher of the Year.

Seattle made Smith an eighth-round draft pick in 2011. Rick Waits, then the Mariners’ minor-league pitching coordinator, said Smith came into the organization with an elite slider — as major-league hitters are now finding out. Smith has used the same grip on his slider since he was 11 years old, and he said his side-arm motion sharpens the pitch.

Waits’ task early in Smith’s pro career was to get the young pitcher to develop other pitches, his power sinker in particular.

“He loved his slider,” said Waits, now in his second season as the Mariners’ pitching coach. “And there’s a good reason why, especially in the minor leagues at A-ball or Double-A — they can’t hit it.”

During spring training in 2014, in an effort to build Smith’s confidence in his sinking fastball and changeup, Waits would sometimes put a limit on the number of sliders Smith could throw in an inning. One day, it was just two sliders. Another, it was none — only fastballs and changeups today, came the orders from Waits.

“And he threw like nine pitches, with a strikeout and two ground balls. It was quick,” Waits said. “I remember him coming in to the dugout with a big smile on his face. I said, ‘See, it is possible.’ For me, I felt like I didn’t have to badger him about it anymore after that. He understood.”

Last September, Smith made his debut with the Mariners and provided an immediate lift in the bullpen, allowing no runs and just two hits in nine appearances. He would make a club-record 20 appearances before allowing his first run last month, and he has a 1.52 ERA with 36 strikeouts and five walks in 292/3 innings this season. And, much to Waits’ delight, Smith is throwing his sinking fastball 56.6 percent of the time and his slider 38.2 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs.

Waits said he hasn’t noticed “any difference whatsoever” in Smith’s approach now that he’s closing games.

“A lot of guys might try to overthrow or make their stuff better than what it needs to be,” Waits said, “but he hasn’t done that at all.”

With Fernando Rodney struggling in the closer’s role, Smith has been called upon this month in save opportunities. Manager Lloyd McClendon isn’t quite ready to anoint Smith his permanent closer, but he has praised Smith’s work.

“He’s done a tremendous job,” McClendon said. “I’m very proud of him.”

Smith wants to enjoy the rush as long as it lasts.

“It means a lot to have my manager and everyone all the way up to the front office put their trust in me to get the job done right now,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to be doing coming up through the minor leagues, so to be in this position now it feels good. Rodney is my teammate, and I’m cheering him on; it could be a day or two or whenever (when Rodney is back as the closer) — they haven’t told me anything, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.

“I’m just trying to enjoy it and take it one day at a time.”

Closing time
Carson Smith has been an effective reliever for the Mariners this season, going from setup man to closer.
Games ERA Saves (blown saves) Holds
April 6-June 5 1.13 0 (1) 11
June 6- current 3.18 5 (0) 0
Source: baseball-reference.com