By David Willis
MANCHESTER, N.H. — At 42 years old, John Smoltz now looks a tad older than the days when he was carving out his reputation as possibly the greatest big game pitcher in major league history. But when he took the mound last night, he looked like anything but a pitcher past his prime.
After 20 years as a member of the Atlanta Braves, Smoltz made his next step toward taking the mound as a member of the Red Sox. While he was not yet in a Boston uniform, he was wearing a Red Sox-style jersey in a rehab start for the Portland Sea Dogs against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats at Merchantsauto.com Stadium.
"My goal is to get into these games a little easier than if I was in Boston," he said. "I was very pleased with my splitter and changeup, but a little displeased with my slider. I think I threw a few pitches that major leaguers would have swung at. I know my pitches will be sharper. I have to work to reach my goals."
The Red Sox signed the eight-time All-Star as a free agent in the offseason. But, since he underwent season-ending surgery for a torn labrum in his pitching elbow last June 10, the Boston organization has taken a slow approach. Smoltz opened the season on the disabled list, and last night made the second of what he expects will be five minor league starts to prepare him for his return to the majors.
"I can't think about getting major league batters out just yet," he said. "I want to get back into doing things like making adjustments and getting familiar with the game. Things you take for granted when you've been doing it for as long as I have."
Smoltz threw 3 1/3 innings, allowing three hits and one earned run. He struck out two — one looking and other swinging — did not walk a batter and was clocked at 94 mph on one pitch. After nearly being hit by a line drive in the first, he set the next eight batters down in order before finding some trouble with two outs in the third.
"I didn't have great stuff at times," he said. "But overall I am very happy. I am trying to focus on pitching like I would in a spring training game. I threw pitches I probably wouldn't in a regular season game. But I had no pain. I was happy with how my arm responded to the dry weather.
"Above anything else in my career, this is going to take mental toughness," he said. "I have to be patient. I want to come out and set the world on fire. But when I signed this contract, I knew August, September and October is where it would pay off."
There was plenty of buzz around the ballpark before the game. By 4 p.m., fans packed the bar and grill that overlooks left field, and crowded around the open portion of the right-field wall, hoping to catch a glimpse of Smoltz warming up. The Fisher Cats drew a crowd of 8,903, a new record for their five-year-old ballpark.
Smoltz was greeted by loud cheers as he walked onto the field in the first. He was also given standing ovations after the third, and when he came out to throw to just one batter in the fourth.
It will take time for baseball fans to accept seeing Smoltz take the mound in any uniform other than Atlanta, where he won 210 games, the 1996 Cy Young and the 1995 World Series.
And no one had found it odder than Smoltz.
"It's been a very weird process," he said. "I have tried to engage in the whole situation of being a member of the Red Sox. But it has been from afar because I haven't been competing. It is a great team to play for because they are winning, and doing it in a way that will benefit them in September."
Smoltz is expecting to make one more rehab start for Single-A Greenville, then two more for Pawtucket. If he were to stay on that rotation of throwing every fifth day, he would be on schedule for his second Red Sox start to come against Atlanta on June 21, a prospect Smoltz did not savor.
"I don't think perfect is the right word," he said. "If it happens that way, I will attack the Braves just like I would attack the Yankees or any other team. My request was that I did not make my first start against the Braves. That game would be too big. With everything surrounding it, a breath wouldn't be easy to find."
But he now is ready to play for the Red Sox.
"But my goal is to keep no runs on the board at Fenway Park for as long as possible," he joked. "I know I eventually will (give up a run), but I haven't done it yet."
Hitting a legend
If 30-year-old Todd Donovan never reaches the major leagues, he can always say he dominated a legend. The outfielder, who entered the game with a .274 batting average, went 2 for 2 against John Smoltz — both solid singles — and scored the lone run Smoltz allowed.
"I can't lie, it was great," Donovan said. "It's a day I'm going to remember for a long time, especially if I don't get to the majors. I was looking at him like all the people in the stands. That's my big league opportunity."