ANAHEIM -- Carson Smith hasn't been officially proclaimed the Mariners' new closer. Or temporary closer. Or anything else. When the phone rings in the bullpen, he waits for his name to be called, just like always.
But for the past three weeks, those calls have been coming in ninth-inning save situations, and the 25-year-old rookie has relished the chance to be Seattle's stopper after Fernando Rodney's early-season struggles
"It's been a great experience," said Smith, who is 5-for-5 in save situations since entering the ninth-inning mix. "The opportunities I'm getting, the manager and coaches are trusting in me to go out and get the job done. It gives me a lot of confidence to go out there and compete and know I'm good enough to get guys out at this level."
Smith has been getting guys out on a regular basis since his arrival in Seattle as a September callup last year. The 6-foot-6 Texan has a 1.14 ERA and 0.71 WHIP in 42 Major League appearances, with 47 strikeouts and nine walks in 39 1/3 innings heading into Tuesday's Interleague series in San Diego.
When Rodney struggled, manager Lloyd McClendon hesitated initially to push the youngster into a closing role too quickly, but Smith has maintained his power and presence since the move was made.
"He's coming on pretty good," McClendon said. "He's handled things a lot better than I thought he would. And he's had the ability to bounce back so far. We're not even halfway through the season, though."
McClendon went to Smith in a non-save situation in Friday's 3-1 win over the Angels, but even that was a vote of confidence, as the skipper wanted him to face Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the critical eighth. He then brought Rodney in for an easier ninth-inning situation.
Trout singled and Pujols walked in that scenario, but Smith got an inning-ending double-play grounder to escape that jam, as he showed again that he's developing the needed poise to be a late-inning force. The youngster's heavy slider and mid-90s heat are a formidable combo.
"He's got stuff," McClendon said. "He's got a weapon to work with. He's got an angle that hitters don't see."
Smith has faced Trout and Pujols more than any other hitters so far in his brief big league career. Trout is just 1-for-5 with a walk and two strikeouts against him. Pujols is 0-for-5 with a walk and a strikeout.
"I feel like every time we play the Angels, I'm facing those two guys," Smith said with a smile. "They're good hitters. I have to make good pitches against those guys, and even when I do, sometimes they're going to get the best of it."
But Smith has more than held his own, and the mental toughness to handle those situations is part of why McClendon shifted him into the closer's role for now. And the youngster hasn't skipped a beat.
"It's great," Smith said of the rush of the late-inning appearances with games on the line. "In Anaheim, they have the Rally Monkey and they get the crowd going. It's a whole different atmosphere wherever you are when it's late in the game like that. It's a joy to be a part of it."
Smith said Rodney has helped in the transition as well.
"Fernando is a great teammate," said Smith. "He was going through his struggles at times, but you couldn't tell. He was the same guy. He's always good to me. I try to pick up on everything he does and learn from a great veteran player like that."
"I think he's got good stuff," said Rodney. "He can be a closer. He has to keep working to prepare himself to pitch every day. Sometimes you have a tough week and the next day you have to keep it up and shut the door. When you have that mentality, you can close games. I think he has stuff. He just needs to keep working."
And while McClendon initially expressed concern about Smith being physically prepared to handle the closer's job, Smith says he's more than ready.
"I feel great," he said. "As Joe Beimel would tell me, 'You're young. You better feel great.' You can't complain about back-to-back days. I feel great and am bouncing back just fine. Hopefully, I'll keep getting opportunities."