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A waiting game with Smoltz

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 7, 2009
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The great master plan - John Smoltz as added weapon in the postseason - only works if Smoltz is pitching well.

So far, and granted it’s only three starts, the plan is wobbly, though Smoltz doesn’t see it that way.

The results aren’t there right now. Will they be? Will we see a 42-year-old Smoltz who can be plugged into the postseason rotation and overwhelm the opposition and help bring another championship to Boston? Or is this a fairy tale that will simply fizzle?

What everyone must realize is that Smoltz made only his third big league start of the season last night. He didn’t pitch well, and fell to 0-2 as the Athletics beat the Red Sox, 6-0, at Fenway Park.

Smoltz had a bad inning again - this time in the fourth when he allowed four runs - much like he did in his first start against Washington June 25, when he surrendered four runs in the first inning.

In between was a four-inning, one-run performance against the Orioles, that wacky game the Sox led by nine runs only to lose, 11-10, in which Smoltz pitched well but wasn’t able to go longer because of a rain delay.

Last night, the weak-hitting Oakland lineup (a .242 average, second lowest in the majors) got him for 10 hits over six innings. His velocity wasn’t great - he was reaching 91-92 miles per hour - and when it’s not totally there, he has to be pinpoint with his location. And there wasn’t much of that.

Everyone’s rooting for Smoltz, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, who has tried to reinvent his career after major shoulder surgery at a ripe old age.

Anyone who has played with Smoltz will tell you, and Tom Glavine has said it often: “He’s the most competitive player I’ve been around.’’

No doubt those competitive juices are still flowing, but now they’re accompanied by the frustration of futile results.

Last night, the A’s young lefty, Brett Anderson, simply was better.

Smoltz knows how to pitch. But the fastball he might have left up in the zone and gotten away with because it was 97 m.p.h. now floats up there slowly enough to get hit. At least it did last night.

The A’s cracked four first-pitch fastballs for hits before Smoltz made adjustments. Then he wasn’t quite as crisp with his offspeed pitches.

“I watched the whole game again and I’m still shaking my head over some of the hits and some of the plays and some of the pitches that I didn’t think should have been hit and found holes,’’ lamented Smoltz.

“Pitching and execution and results can be very confusing. Three pitches and they scored a run. Leadoff double, bunt single, and I don’t know how Nomar [Garciaparra] hit that pitch and hit it through the hole [a single to left that drove in a run in the fourth],’’ Smoltz said.

The key hit of the game, according to Sox manager Terry Francona, was the splitter later in the fourth inning that Mark Ellis, the No. 9 hitter, deposited off the center field wall for a double, driving in two runs.

“Ellis hit a great pitch, or I should say he stayed inside the pitch, and what I hate more than anything are two-out runs,’’ Smoltz said. “Ellis hit a split. He had to be sitting offspeed because I hadn’t thrown him one yet. If I could get it down a half-inch more . . . I didn’t and it turns into a double. I have to make a better pitch and keep it at 1-0. Those last three runs really hurt.’’

Smoltz is certainly seeing things more positively than the rest of us. He has that right after a storied career. Maybe he’s trying to keep as positive as possible, but maybe he’s right. Maybe he will begin to get on a roll. He says he feels healthy. He says he feels strong. The Sox brass does not seem concerned, either.

“Threw the ball really well but didn’t have much to show for it,’’ Smoltz said. “I have to make sure I realize I’m making good progress even though the results don’t look like that. As a pitcher, when you give up ground balls and you give up runs there’s nothing you can do about it.

“I think I threw 11 straight strikes and I gave up three runs. I haven’t done that before.’’

Smoltz was often animated, sometimes upset at himself, sometimes upset he didn’t get a borderline call from the umpire, sometimes ticked off at how the A’s got hits when he felt they shouldn’t have. He kept going back to the Ellis double and the feeling after he threw it that it was precisely the pitch he wanted to make.

He was asked whether his reduced velocity has made him have to be more precise with his offspeed stuff.

“Early on I might have put pressure on myself for that,’’ said Smoltz. “As [pitching coach] John Farrell said, my fastball is good enough. They really haven’t been hitting the fastball.

“I believe my stuff will continue to get better and the life on my fastball is better than what I was giving it credit for.

“I bought into things people said early on, but my mechanics and ability to hit spots are still there. I’ve given up all two-out runs except one or two, and that has to change. I’m going to look and see if there are any trends. I don’t think I have to be perfect. I haven’t pitched away from my fastball or contact.’’

“I’m almost there,’’ he said.

Smoltz is seeing things the rest of us perhaps can’t see. Only he knows whether he can pull off the master plan the Red Sox had in mind when they watched him in a tryout last winter. The fans may be thinking this isn’t going to work out but Smoltz feels it’s just a matter of time.

It’s that competitive aspect of his persona that has made him a future Hall of Famer. It is why he’s been able to rebound from adversity a few times in his career.

He wants to do it one more time.

And Red Sox Nation is waiting to see whether he can.

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

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