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On baseball

Not much of a start, but it’s hardly the end

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 26, 2009
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WASHINGTON - It killed him to be out there for a four-run first inning in which he threw 35 pitches and faced nine batters. It was hardly the way 42-year-old John Smoltz wanted to reenter the majors.

The hardest thing for great veteran pitchers like Smoltz and Pedro Martínez and Roger Clemens to prove is that they can still pitch at a high level with reduced velocity. The jury is out on whether Smoltz can, but in his mind, the verdict has been rendered: He’s back.

Smoltz actually threw harder than expected, consistently at 92 with his fastball, with a smattering of 93s and even a 94 on the gun. But it’s not the 96-98 he used to hit when he could just rear back and blow away the competition.

Smoltz thinks he can win with what he has.

“I definitely have enough [velocity] right now,’’ he said, following last night’s 9-3 loss to the Nationals. “My fastball is probably better than I give it credit for. I probably didn’t establish enough fastballs. The intensity of the game will show down the road. And maybe those numbers go up, but it’s irrelevant if the numbers go up and my ball goes up. I know what in-game adjustments I have to make.

“I’m astute on one thing. This type of game sticks in my memory.’’

The last thing Smoltz wants is for anyone to make excuses for him, so there will be none offered here. His first outing was disappointing, but he recovered nicely after the first innings, striking out the side in the fifth. He was trying to find himself and he eventually did, but he knows there can’t be too many first-inning meltdowns.

“I can’t be disappointed,’’ he said. “I lost a little rhythm there in the first inning, just like I did three other times in my career when I came back from a long layoff.

“I just tried to slow down as much as I could, but I have to give them credit, they battled me, seven-, eight-, nine-pitch at-bats. I made a bad pitch in each of those at-bats to give up a hit, but I’m very encouraged with how good I can be, the way I felt, and with everything going forward.’’

Smoltz felt a key moment was hitting Nick Johnson - the second batter of the game - with a pitch with one out.

“I was disappointed with the bloop hit,’’ said Smoltz, referring to Anderson Hernandez’s two-run single. “Two runs is two runs. I felt that was pretty much the unfortunate hit.

“But it put their young pitcher in a nice position with a four-run lead. Most times, if the line score is what it is, I’m going to be very disappointed. But I can’t be at this point.

“I’d love to have that mulligan in the first inning. It just happened and now everything will be normal for me.’’

The bottom line is, Smoltz has to produce quality starts if he wants to see action in October. However, after one five-inning outing, there’s no need to be dramatic.

Smoltz had said Wednesday that he hoped to learn from his previous reinventions. He hasn’t been impressive in his first times back in new roles, but in both cases he went on to have a good year. In 2001, after missing all of 2000, he made his return on May 27 and gave up six hits and five runs in three innings. On April 5, 2005, after converting back to a starter, he was pounded for six hits and seven runs in 1 2/3 innings.

“I got a little anxious and jerked some pitches, and that’s normal when you go through this process,’’ he said. “Everybody wants to come out and throw great, but I threw so many quality pitches that I was pleased and I know that in a matter of a few starts I’ll be homed in to where I want to be.’’

Smoltz said he tried his best to make it just another start, but the build-up - including the 71 text messages he received yesterday - made it hard. He felt he was going in slow motion in warmups. The flow just wasn’t there early on. But he got the feel back.

“You come out with high expectations,’’ Smoltz said. “And you just know it’s one start. I tried to downplay it as much as I could. Getting interviewed all the way up to this point, to the manager being encouraged with the stuff that I had tonight . . .’’

Terry Francona was convinced that he saw a pitcher who is going to help the team.

“I was really encouraged,’’ said the manager.

Smoltz is going to have more drama in the next few days when he returns to Atlanta and meets and greets his old fan base. He’ll also get a better feel on how his shoulder feels; that will be in two days, when he’ll find out “whether or not I got hit by a truck.’’

Once he gets that over, he feels life will be normal again. He’ll go out every fifth day and be a starting pitcher with a routine. He says he has so many people behind him that he doesn’t want to fail.

“I’m glad it’s over,’’ he said, “so I can resume and do what every pitcher does and make improvements. That’s probably what I feared most in this game - that I wanted to do so well for everyone involved that you start thinking, ‘How did I get here and how did this happen?’

“No matter if you’re 42 or 22, I feel I can accomplish whatever I want to accomplish. That’s why I came back.’’

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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