Rays’ Mallex Smith thrilled to be back

TORONTO — Mallex Smith doesn’t know how he contracted the viral infection that landed him in the hospital for the weekend before last, or too many of the specifics of the medical diagnosis and treatment that mercifully saved him.

He was well too aware of the details of how badly he was affected, the excruciating pain that wrapped the outside of his neck and the inflammation in his throat that made it difficult to swallow and even to breathe.

“I’ve broken things,” Smith said Monday, talking for the first time about the situation as he rejoined the Rays for a 7-1 win at Toronto. “And that was the worst pain I ever had.”

Smith had been playing his best baseball as a big leaguer, at the plate, on the bases and in the field, but losing his dynamic contributions quickly became secondary.

The suddenness and severity of his condition was alarming, enough for Smith’s mother and sisters to come down from Tallahassee immediately to be with him, which then raised the level of concern among Rays people.

“The amount of pain that I was in, it was pretty unbearable,” Smith said. “Me just going to the hospital for something that wasn’t sports related just triggered my family, so they came down to see if I was okay.”

Smith said he went back to his St. Petersburg home after the Aug. 24 game at the Trop and began feeling bad as the night went on.

“I started to have some little aches with my neck, and around 3 a.m. my whole neck was inflamed, really hurting,” Smith said. “My neck and my throat.”

He contacted head athletic trainer Joe Benge, and rather than leading off for the Rays that Friday, Smith was instead lying in a bed at a St. Petersburg hospital, unsure what was wrong.

“Everything happened so fast, as far as having a true diagnostic of what was going on, I was in pain before I could really even figure out what was happening,” he said.

Or get a sense exactly how dire things were, whether his condition was life-threatening. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. I just know I got round the clock service from the nurses and Dr. (John) Gross and his team and staff.”

Smith, 25, said the treatment he received eased the pain noticeably by Saturday morning, but breathing, swallowing, eating and talking were all still difficult.

“It was rough; I wasn’t sure on Friday,” he said. “I woke up Saturday and I was still in pain but not in as much pain so I felt a lot better about that.”

Still, when manager Kevin Cash stopped by to see him that afternoon, he was concerned.

“It knocked him on his butt good,” Cash said Monday. “You don’t see Mallex quiet very often, and he was quiet.”

Though what little Smith ate was soup and he lost about 5 pounds over the weekend, he felt markedly better Sunday — “I wouldn’t say ‘normal,’ but close” — and got released that night, then gradually felt better and stronger each day, playing in a Saturday rehab game for the Stone Crabs as the final test.

“Definitely random, never experienced anything like that,” Smith said.

The cause remains a mystery.

“I have no idea,” he said. “It could be a handful of things. My biggest guess would probably be going from city to city touching this and that, maybe not washing hands. My body could have been a little under the weather unknowingly and then something could have set it off in a dirtier way.”

Smith was thrilled to rejoin the lineup, delivering an infield single that scored a run and cutting off a ball in the gap.

“Coming back and being able to play on a high level is very humbling,” he said after the game. “It’s a great feeling.”

The Rays were just as happy to have him, welcoming everything he brings on the field and off, his energy, upbeat (though probably no longer referred to as infectious) personality, omnipresent smile and community spirit a huge presence in the clubhouse.

“We’ve played pretty well while he’s been out, but a big part of the reason we got hot was his bat and his performance at the top of the lineup,” Cash said. “It allows us, I think, to thicken up our lineup, putting Mallex back at the top and then moving Joey (Wendle), whether he hits third or fifth on a given day, really lengthens our lineup out.”

His impact is significant.

After Monday’s 1-for-5. Smith ranked among the American League leaders with a .306 average, having hit .371 in 17 games since moving to the leadoff spot Aug. 5, spraying line drives everywhere, with multiple hits in seven of nine games. He is tied for first in the AL with nine triples and fourth with 27 steals.

“It was good to have Mallex back,” Cash said.

He wasn’t the only one saying that.

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