THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Patient progress for Smoltz

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By Adam Kilgore
Globe Staff / May 27, 2009
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MANCHESTER, N.H. - The Red Sox announced 133 days ago that John Smoltz would pitch for them this season. His most difficult task since that day, through all the side sessions and workouts and packing and unpacking, has been to not think ahead, about facing major league hitters.

After Smoltz threw 60 pitches in 3 1/3 innings last night in his second minor league rehab start, the time when he can discard patience had drawn close enough to become tangible.

"My radar screen has 'Boston' on it," said Smoltz.

Smoltz lasted one pitch into the fourth inning for Double A Portland, enough work for him to set a crude timetable for his Red Sox debut: Three more minor league rehab starts, then join the rotation.

On Sunday, Smoltz will pitch five innings or 75 pitches with Single A Greenville. That much is certain. If Smoltz continues at his current progression, he'll wait four days, then move up to Triple A Pawtucket. Another four days off, another start with Pawtucket.

At that rate, Smoltz's first Red Sox start would be June 16, a home game against the Florida Marlins. (His second would be five days later against the Atlanta Braves, with whom Smoltz spent the first 20 years of his career.)

"This, amongst anything else that I've ever done in my career, is going to take a lot of mental toughness to be patient," Smoltz said. "I want to come out and set the world on fire, but it's going to be patience that's going to allow me to get to that point."

Smoltz's latest "rung on the ladder," as he put it, came last night. He allowed one run on three hits while throwing 36 of his 60 pitches for strikes. He fired his fastball between 89 and 91 miles per hour, "which is good," he said.

He was pleased with his splitter and disappointed with his slider. The dry, chilly weather made Smoltz "not hump up on some pitches," he said, which decreased the quality of the break. Overall, he was pleased.

The night began with a "hiccup." Smoltz had thrown with major league baseballs, which have higher seams than minor league balls. "There's a big difference," Smoltz said.

The umpires presented Smoltz with Eastern League balls.

"But I wasn't going to throw the Eastern League balls," Smoltz said. He apologized to the umpires and ultimately got the balls he wanted to throw.

Smoltz had another double-take once on the mound. The radar reading on the scoreboard in center field at MerchantsAuto.com Stadium (yes, really) displayed "86" on Smoltz's first pitch, a fastball.

"What's the deal with that gun?" Smoltz asked someone. "That thing is off, right?"

Yes, it was, he was assured. Regulars at the park know the gun is about 3-4 miles per hour slow - and he still hit 91 with one high-and-outside heater.

Smoltz recorded only one out in the fourth because he wanted get up and down and start innings four times, but he had a limit of 65 pitches. He had thrown 59 after three innings, and he and Portland manager Arnie Beyeler agreed he would throw to one more batter. The first pitch was popped to left.

Smoltz tipped his cap walking into the dugout to a standing ovation, a sign that he was close to Boston, at least geographically. A standing-room crowd watched Smoltz and the Sea Dogs beat the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, 5-1, and the 8,903 fans set a record for the stadium.

The dais for his postgame news conference was crowded with microphones from 10 television stations.

"Presidential speech," said Smoltz with a laugh.

"Everywhere I've gone around here, it's been unbelievable. They keep asking the same old question: 'When you going to be there?' I have to temper what I'm doing. Because I can't wait, either."

Adam Kilgore can be reached at akilgore@globe.com

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