LAKELAND, Fla. -- When Drew Smyly wasn't competing on the diamond last Spring Training, he was playing golf on video games, beating up on fellow prospects Jacob Turner and Casey Crosby. Now, he's on the golf course with Rick Porcello and the rest of the Tigers rotation.
Smyly was a fresh-faced kid out of Arkansas getting his first taste of Spring Training a year ago. Now, he's a recognizable face for Tigers fans, though he's still anonymous enough that he doesn't get recognized much in public.
Most Yankee fans couldn't care less about Smyly last spring. Now, he's the guy who beat them twice in the Bronx -- once in April for his first Major League win, and once in October to pull out the opener of the American League Championship Series.
Smyly has seen his world change since he surprised the Tigers and won a spot out of Spring Training last season. And yet, as spring begins anew, Smyly is in the same spot. He's fighting for a rotation spot as an outsider.
He's fine with that.
"Same goal, same objective," Smyly said. "It's the same as last season: Got to win a spot. It's just that now I kind of know the process, know what to expect. It's just more comfortable."
The competition, though, is quite different.
When Smyly made the rotation out of camp last year, he was the best in a field of unproven talent, outpitching Turner and Andy Oliver in March before beating out Duane Below in the final days of camp. He pitched so well from there that it took a stint on the disabled list and a trade for Anibal Sanchez to knock him out of the rotation.
The good news for him is that he only has to worry about one other starting candidate this spring. But Porcello has been a mainstay in the Tigers' rotation for the better part of four years.
Same goal, yes, but he's got a far different challenge to get there. At this point, all he can worry about is his own game.
With the way he pitched for the better part of last season, he could have let those results stand for his case. As a 22-year-old with no experience above Double-A, Smyly showed immediately that he could handle big league pressure, delivering quality starts in five of his first six outings. He put up nearly identical one-run, six-inning, seven-strikeout performances in back-to-back starts against the Rangers and Yankees in late April, earning his first victory for the latter.
"He came in and he was kind of an unknown to some teams," manager Jim Leyland said. "Most teams hadn't seen that much of him."
He took a 4-3 record and 4.42 ERA into the All-Star break before an intercostal strain delayed him coming out of it. By the time he was ready to pitch, the Tigers had Sanchez filling out their rotation, and Smyly had a ticket to Triple-A Toledo.
He came back in late August as a spot starter and reliever, becoming the unsung hero of the ALCS with two scoreless frames in extra innings of Game 1 to help Detroit regroup from Jose Valverde's blown save and rally for a win on the road.
It was the Yankees, Leyland cautioned, who weren't hitting well, as the rest of the series showed. However, it was a rookie pitcher making sure they didn't wake up.
"I think Smyly's demeanor, that we knew going into camp last year at this time, showed up in New York in October," Leyland said. "He wasn't starstruck. He didn't get in awe of anything. He just kind of went about his business."
Part of Smyly's poise as a rookie came with help from teammates, including Porcello, who also made it to the big leagues in his second year as a pro. They're friends, and Smyly emphasized that their spring competition won't affect that. Moreover, they don't want that to become the storyline.
"We don't want to talk about it," Smyly said.
In the short term, Smyly can be an asset in the Tigers' bullpen. Long term, however, he's a starter -- not a lefty specialist, not a long reliever. And he has worked his repertoire toward that.
With help from pitching coach Jeff Jones, Smyly went to work on improving his changeup, a pitch that was at the back of his arsenal as a rookie. He's encouraged about it, and he got some swings and misses off of it Monday afternoon in his first session against hitters.
Like last spring, he wants to have his pitches ready for hitters when games begin. Unlike last spring, he knows how long camp can be and knows the process of building his stuff to be at his best by the end.
Maybe history will repeat itself and it'll be enough to put him back in the rotation at season's start. If the quest ends differently this time around, he won't be disappointed.
"My long-term goal is I want to be a starter, but I want to get to Detroit," he said. "If I'm helping out the team in the bullpen, that's fine by me."