Rookie Mets pitcher Joe Smith arrived at the mound, looked around and realized he was surrounded. There was an Atlanta runner on every base. Waiting at the plate was Andruw Jones, the Braves' cleanup batter and one of baseball's best hitters, a man whose resume includes 51 home runs two years ago.
Welcome to the Majors, kid.
With more than 50,000 fans roaring, Shea Stadium was shaking, and truth be told, so was Smith. He had been down this path before, facing Edgar Renteria with the bases loaded two weeks earlier in Atlanta. But this was different. This was Shea.
"You hear that roar," Smith said. "You feel it. It's a rush."
The 23-year-old right-hander took a deep breath and went to work. Four pitches later, he had struck out Jones and ended the inning.
Three days later, Smith marched into an extra-inning game against Colorado to face Matt Holliday, who was flirting with a .400 batting average through the season's first month. He retired Holliday and Clint Barmes and came away from that game with the first win of his career.
"This has been special," Smith said. "I'm still in the clouds. I haven't come down yet."
Manager Willie Randolph hasn't been shy about using Smith, calling on the rookie more frequently through the season's first month than any other Mets pitcher. His 15 1/3 scoreless innings have set a club record for a rookie reliever starting his career. He's struck out 18 batters, stranded 12 of 13 inherited runners and has quickly become a solid contributor out of the bullpen.
Not bad for a guy who was pitching for Wright State University a year ago, waiting for the June draft.
"I knew the scouts were looking at me," Smith said. "You do your best and then you wait to find out where you're going."
The Mets picked him in the third round and sent him to the short-season Class A Brooklyn Cyclones, in Coney Island, pitching in the shadow of the amusement park.
"It was a little nuts," he said. "I'd never been through anything like that."
Smith stayed a month, allowed just one earned run in 20 innings and then was bumped up to Double-A Binghamton. He showed enough promise there to earn an invitation to Spring Training and impressed the brass every time they handed him the ball.
"I didn't anticipate that but that was my goal, to get to the big league camp," he said. "I wanted to give myself a fair shot."
The Mets were remaking their bullpen and Smith's sidearm delivery gave him an edge as a replacement for submariner Chad Bradford, who had signed with Baltimore. Smith became a sidearmer by necessity, not choice.
After hurting his shoulder in high school, he enrolled at Wright State without a scholarship and was cut from the team in his freshman year.
"I wasn't throwing well," he said.
So he tried something different.
"I dropped down two years ago," Smith said. "The pitching coach was looking for somebody to try it. I volunteered and it worked out pretty well."
Well enough to make Smith a prospect. He posted 13 saves in 13 opportunities, along with a 3-1 record and an 0.98 ERA in his last year at Wright State. That made him the Horizon League Pitcher of the Year. The next stop was Brooklyn where he posted nine saves and did not allow a run in his last 16 appearances covering 19 innings.
When he came north with the Mets after Spring Training, Smith learned about life in the big city in a hurry. "I got two parking tickets," he said.
Welcome to New York, kid.
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.