Smith reaches top of saves list with No. 358

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

Lee Smith began his big league career as a multi-inning reliever and ended it as one of the most effective closers in the game.

In between, Smith’s consistent excellence led him to the top of the all-time saves list.

Smith’s scoreless ninth inning on April 13, 1993, at Dodger Stadium resulted in a 9-7 win for the St. Louis Cardinals and Smith’s 358th career save. Jeff Reardon held the saves record with 357, and remained active that season with the Cincinnati Reds.

But Reardon didn’t get his first save of the 1993 campaign until April 26 – and though Reardon saved games in four straight appearances from May 6-15, he was never able to retake the lead from Smith.

“Last year, people got on (Smith) because he lost a couple saves early,” Cardinals manager Joe Torre told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But he never makes an excuse. This year, he’s thrown the ball better than he has the last two years.

Smith’s years in St. Louis propelled him to the top of the saves mountain. Acquired from the Red Sox on May 4, 1990, in exchange for Tom Brunansky, Smith saved 27 games over the final five months of that season before posting National League-best totals of 47 saves in 1991 and 43 in 1992.

Reardon surpassed Rollie Fingers’ longstanding mark of 341 saves during the 1992 season, but Smith quickly overtook Reardon on the all-time list.

Starting with his record 358th save, Smith recorded saves in eight straight appearances from April 13-29.

“A lot of people gave up on him a long time ago, said he was finished,” said Cardinals pitcher Les Lancaster, who was the beneficiary of Smith’s record save when he recorded the win against the Dodgers. “But he’s going to do it again this year and on down the line."

Smith also tied Bruce Sutter’s NL record on that April day with his 300th save in the Senior Circuit. He was nearly on pace to lead the NL in saves again in 1993 when the Cardinals traded him to the Yankees in a stretch-drive deal on Aug. 31 in exchange for Rich Batchelor.

Smith finished with 43 saves for the Cardinals – 10 short of NL leader Randy Myers of the Cubs – and three for the Yankees, for whom he appeared in eight games without allowing a run.

The 35-year-old Smith became a free agent following the season, then signed with the Baltimore Orioles. He led all of baseball with 33 saves in 41 games in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign and saved another 35 games with the Angels in 1995 before closing his career with stints with the Reds and Expos.

When Smith retired from baseball during the 1997 season, his 478 saves were easily the most in history. He held the saves record for more than 13 years before Trevor Hoffman passed him during the 2006 season.

“You’ve got to turn the page when you’re a closer,” Torre said when Smith was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019. “You can’t live off yesterday’s performance whether it be good or bad. (Smith) had a perfect temperament for it.”

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

To the top
To the top

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series