Ready or not, Smoltz feels good

WASHINGTON – John Smoltz(notes) was 9 years old when a TV show about three female private eyes debuted on ABC in 1976, and Farrah Fawcett’s poster became the wallpaper of choice for pop-eyed adolescent boys.

Smoltz was 21 when he made his big-league debut for the Atlanta Braves on July 23, 1988, the same month Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” became the fifth song from the album “Bad” to hit No. 1 on the pop charts.

Smoltz was 25 and had already appeared in his first World Series for the Braves when he struck out a career-high 15 in a complete-game win over the Montreal Expos on May 24, 1992, just two days after Ed McMahon belted out, “Heeerrre’s Johnny” a final time for Johnny Carson on the “Tonight Show.”

Smoltz needed no reminding that he has been around a long time Thursday night when he surfaced in his latest incarnation, as a 42-year-old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox unwilling to have his professional obituary written on anything but his own terms. One measure of the occasion’s significance? The number of text messages he received before the game – 71, by his count.

The Red Sox are betting that a man who has had his shoulder reconstructed in the 12 months since he last appeared in a big-league game still has something to offer. Neither the team nor the player, who also has had his elbow rebuilt four times, can turn back the odometer on the 3,400 innings he has thrown in his career.

But while Thursday’s results were not encouraging – the last-place Washington Nationals batted once through the order in a four-run first inning and Smoltz wound up yielding five runs on seven hits, a walk and a hit batsman in five innings – he insisted the line score obscured the night’s most significant takeaway.

“I feel like I can accomplish whatever I want to accomplish this year,” Smoltz said. “That’s why I came back, that’s why the rehab went the way it did, and now it’s a matter of just going out there and doing it like I did before.”

Smoltz was supposed to retire a Brave, the only big-league uniform he’d ever worn. A year ago last January, he signed what many assumed would be his last contract, a $14 million one-year deal with a $12 million option for 2009 that automatically kicked in if he pitched 200 innings.

“I’m the most blessed man in the world,” he said at the time. “To have played all my career in one city and play mostly with one manager, I just couldn’t have asked for more.”

But after making five starts last April, Smoltz’s shoulder gave out. He came back for one relief appearance against the Marlins on June 2, blew a save while giving up a couple of runs on three hits in an inning, then announced he was electing to undergo season-ending surgery. This was no mere cleanup, either. Smoltz’s rotator cuff and labrum both underwent major repairs.

Two hundred innings? Smoltz pitched 28, the fewest of his career, and, he became a free agent after the season. The Braves never imagined he’d sign elsewhere, especially after manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell saw him throw in December and were encouraged by what they’d seen.

But the Red Sox were intrigued by tapes that his agent, Keith Grunewald, had sent, and Smoltz was impressed when pitching coach John Farrell and senior VP Ben Cherington came to watch him throw. He was miffed, according to a source with direct knowledge of his dealings with the Braves, that Atlanta GM Frank Wren had passed on watching him work out, something Wren had not anticipated. But when Smoltz did not return Wren’s phone calls, the Braves sensed something might be awry, and when the Red Soxoffered more guaranteed money than the Braves – Atlanta was gunshy after a 2008 season in which three-fifths of their starting rotation went down with injuries – Smoltz jumped.

He termed it an affront. “John needs those kinds of things as a motivation,” said one baseball man who has known him his entire career. “That’s what drives him.”

The Braves said they had to be more careful with their dollars than the Red Sox. They also wondered, after a winter in which A.J. Burnett(notes) turned them down, a trade for Jake Peavy(notes) couldn’t get done and the Rafael Furcal(notes) signing blew up, whether Smoltz just decided he’d have a better chance of writing a happy ending in Boston than in Atlanta.

The PR hit the Braves took when Smoltz left in January, however, will seem like a minor tempest if Smoltz is pitching the Red Sox deep into October while the Braves watch from the sidelines. Never mind that the Red Sox could better afford to make the kind of low-risk, high-reward investment they made in Smoltz, especially after a year in which Manny Ramirez’s(notes) giant salary came off the books.

Thursday night, Smoltz’s velocity was in the 91-93 m.p.h. range, and he touched 94. “Definitely, I have enough life on the fastball,” he said.

He was happy with the way he threw his slider, puzzled that he didn’t put away more Nationals’ hitters with his splitter, though he left some up in the danger zone.

The first inning sped up on him, he said, after he hit the second batter he faced, Nick Johnson(notes), in the left shin. Ryan Zimmerman(notes) grounded a double down the line, Adam Dunn(notes) walked to load the bases, RBI singles by Josh Willingham(notes) and Josh Bard(notes) followed, and an opposite-field flare by Anderson Hernandez(notes) made it 4-0.

“Bard battled me seven, eight, nine pitches,” Smoltz said. “One bad pitch at the end of the at-bat.”

The hardest-hit ball of the night was a double to dead center by Willingham – “the right-hander,” as he was called by Smoltz, who was unable to summon the name. But he set down the last eight batters he faced, and struck out the side – Dunn, Willingham, and Bard – in his final inning.

“We’re more than satisfied,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “We’re excited.”

So is Smoltz. He remembers a few years ago, when people wondered whether he’d come back from reconstructive elbow surgery. “I could hear the same doubt then,” he said, “and that quickly changed.”

If all those years have proven anything, it’s likely to change again. You have Smoltz’s word for it.

“I have to get through this weekend,” said Smoltz, referring to the team’s trip to Atlanta, where he was regarded, as David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote when Smoltz left, as the bearded face of the Braves’ figurative Mt. Rushmore. “This weekend will be very interesting.

“After I get through the weekend, I can start relaxing, put my goals where they need to be and help this team win a lot of games.”

Gordon Edes is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Gordon a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jun 26, 2009