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After getting clocked, Smoltz’s time has ended

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / August 8, 2009

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NEW YORK - In the wake of a disastrous defeat, one in a series for a pitcher picked up to be a postseason savior, John Smoltz, 42, acknowledged that “time may not be on my side if this continues.’’

Less than 12 hours later, after general manager Theo Epstein had flown in from Boston, time ran out on Smoltz.

The future Hall of Famer had been humbled by pitiful performances on the mound. Now he was humbled by the Red Sox’ decision yesterday to designate him for assignment.

“It’s never easy,’’ Epstein said. “I think we just felt like we had to try something different. It’s never easy to tell someone they’re designated for assignment, especially a Hall of Fame pitcher like that. I think it was certainly time to try something different.

“John understood and we asked him just to go home for a few days and think about what he wants to do, think about if he can still help.’’

But with the Sox barely afloat, something had to be done. The Sox could not endure more of the same. Smoltz could not combine an excellent slider with fastball command. Johnny Damon said after Thursday’s game that the Yankees were laying off the slider and pouncing on his fastball.

Thursday’s performance, to use Smoltz’s words, was embarrassing and humiliating and humbling. It was not a performance befitting a man who will step into Cooperstown. Five years from his final pitch, whether that has already been thrown, perhaps this season will be forgotten.

Smoltz’s numbers with the Red Sox were not good, a 2-5 record and an 8.33 ERA. In eight starts, Smoltz gave up fewer than five runs only twice, once in a rain-shortened, four-inning outing. He ended his stint in Boston on a low note, allowing eight runs in 3 1/3 innings Thursday night in a 13-6 loss to New York.

“I think we appreciated what his pedigree and his past was and respect it a lot,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “He didn’t let us down as far as a person, his work ethic. He gave everything he had. Just got to a point where we think we need to make a change to help our team do better. But that would never lessen the respect we have for him and what he’s accomplished in his career.’’

Jason Bay preferred to remember Smoltz as a legend. Along with most of the Sox, he was surprised to learn yesterday’s news. The machinations were made after Epstein flew in and had a sit-down with Smoltz.

“I faced him a few years ago, back when he was dominant,’’ Bay said. “He hit a little rough patch and I think a guy that’s that competitive had a rough time really dealing with that. But the guy I’ll always remember is the dominant guy who pitched for [20-plus] years, did it all for Atlanta. It was a pleasure to play for him, and hopefully things will get better.’’

Would Smoltz have gotten more leeway if the Sox had been playing well?

“Regardless right now if you’re a rookie or if you’re a guy with 20 years in the big leagues, right now we’re just looking for people to get the job done,’’ Bay said. “Regardless of our position and the way we’ve played, it’s long term, too. We’re not looking for right now, what’s going to happen in a start. We’re looking for what’s going to get us down the road. Whether it be a rookie or John Smoltz, we’re just trying to make baseball decisions.’’

That decision was to designate Smoltz rather than relegate him to the bullpen because it would be difficult for his surgically repaired right shoulder to warm up quickly. Epstein said the Sox were “open-minded’’ to having Smoltz remain with the team, and that the sides would reconvene next week.

“I think John, he’s certainly not a quitter,’’ Epstein said. “That’s one thing he’s not. It certainly never entered his mind to stop pitching. When he woke up today, it was how can I help the team win? But he’s also a realist and understands that the results so far have not been what we’re looking for. I think that’s the best way to categorize it.’’

The team couldn’t wait for Smoltz to right himself. Not with Brad Penny and Clay Buchholz also struggling. Not with the way the season has turned since the Sox returned from the All-Star break.

“I think it’s been surprising sort of how quickly we’ve gone from the ‘best starting pitching depth in baseball’ to a challenging time for our rotation,’’ Epstein said. “But it’s important that you do turn it around and find a way to stabilize the rotation and get a number of pitchers giving us a chance to win night in and night out. That’s our challenge right now and I think we’ll find a way to do it. But it’s not easy. We need to turn it around.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com

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