BOSTON — By the third inning, it had become a sad sight for any fan of John Smoltz.
The Boston righty had just allowed his fourth run of the contest, on a rocket double off the bat of Baltimore's Nick Markakis, and nearly the entire 37,606 sellout crowd at Fenway Park erupted in a chorus of boos for the struggling former Atlanta ace.
Smoltz was lit up for six earned runs and nine hits in just five innings yesterday, in Boston's 6-2 loss to the Orioles. It continued a disheartening debut season for the former Cy Young winner with the Red Sox.
The tough performance again raised the question, how much longer will the Red Sox stay with the Smoltz experiment?
"I'm shaking my head," said Smoltz, who fell to 1-4 on the season. "My frustration level is as high as it has ever been. From what I believe I can do. I would walk away from the game right now if I didn't think I could still be successful. I've been in holes before, and I'll get out of this one if I have the opportunity."
The Sox took a chance in signing Smoltz in the offseason. The righty had delivered a Hall-of-Fame career with Atlanta. In 21 big league seasons, Smoltz won 210 games, saved 154 during a stint as the closer and had a 3.26 career ERA. He was named an All-Star eight times, most recently in 2007, and won the NL Cy Young in 1996.
But Smoltz's 2008 season ended after just five starts. He underwent season-ending surgery for a torn labrum last June 10, an injury that has ended the careers of countless young pitchers. And Smoltz was faced with rehabbing at 41 years old (he turned 42 in March).
He opened this season on the disabled list, then made six rehab starts through the Sox minor league system before being activated, and made his first start for the Sox on June 25. But since his arrival in Boston, Smoltz has looked like anything but the sure-fire Hall-of-Famer that earned the reputation as possibly the game's all-time best big-game pitcher.
In his first five starts this year, Smoltz was 1-3 with a dismal 6.31 ERA. His lone win came against last-place Kansas City, in which he pitched just five innings. He had allowed 33 hits in 25 2/3 innings pitched. And it was no better yesterday.
After just two batters, it was clear it would be another long day for Smoltz. He walked the first batter of the game, Brian Roberts, and No. 2 hitter Felix Pie followed with a single. Two batters later, Red Sox-killer Markakis gave Baltimore the lead with a sacrifice fly. The Orioles added three more in the third.
Smoltz was booed even more loudly in the fifth after surrendering a homer to Markakis, who was 2 for 2 with two runs and three RBIs off the starter.
"When you give up six runs, not matter how you say or feel, it's irrelevant when the results are the way they are," said Smoltz. "That's the frustrating part. ... My stuff is not done. My slider was outstanding. But until you execute, you have to deal with it."
It was the fourth start in which he allowed five or more runs, and second straight he allowed six. He has pitched into the sixth inning just twice, and has not yet worked into the seventh. It was also the fourth start in which he allowed at least seven hits.
"He got beat almost all day with his fastball," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "But he had his best slider by far. ... I've been wrong before, but his career isn't over. We want better results, certainly he does, but there's plenty to win."
The Sox stated consistently as Smoltz made his way back to the majors that it would take time for him to find his major league stuff again after more than a year away. But, six starts is a pretty large sampling.
"John's a competitor and wants to do well," said Sox outfielder Jason Bay. "It's tough for anyone to struggle, and especially him. He's beating himself up. But I believe he'll get it done."
Assuming starter Tim Wakefield's injury is not season ending, which it by all accounts is not, the Sox will soon be faced with a decision. Will they stick with Smoltz or super-prospect Clay Buchholz, who was stellar in his first start and so-so in his second in place of Wakefield? What about when (and if) Daisuke Matsuzaka returns?
There is also the real chance the Sox could deal for a starter at the trading deadline, further complicating matters for Smoltz. Could he move to the bullpen, where he excelled for Atlanta? Only the Red Sox can answer that.
But an answer to the Smoltz dilemma may have to come soon.