Smoltz, pitching, and patience

FORT MYERS, Fla. – John Smoltz will not throw an official, major league pitch for two months, maybe less time if he’s lucky. He reminds himself of that constantly. Patience, he understands, is necessary when you’re a 42-year-old pitcher eight months removed from major shoulder surgery.

Days like today make patience more difficult. Smoltz is proud of the restraint he has shown in his rehabilitation, not once surpassing his prescribed workload. He plans on keeping to that. But yesterday, he also stood at his locker, all smiles, and said, “If somebody made me, I could throw in a game today.”

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In another corner of the clubhouse, Mark Kotsay, who had the best seat possible — the batter’s box — for Smoltz’s session, had this assessment of his former Atlanta Braves teammate: “He’s two months away, but I think he could go out and get major league hitters out right now, for sure. He doesn’t have quite his velocity, but the ball is still popping out of his hand. From Day 1 last year, he didn’t say that he was hurt, but he wasn’t right. He did everything he could to pitch through that pain. He was free and easy today. The ball looked live.

“He was throwing all his pitches, that’s for sure. I’m not going to let the cat out of the bag which ones he’s going to perfect early. But if today was any indication of what he’s going to be like when he gets back – it’s ridiculous to see him throw the ball today and think he’s two months away.”

Smoltz beamed after he hurled 47 pitches in his second bullpen session this spring, throwing all five of his pitches and erasing the awkwardness from his first side session, which took place Wednesday. He threw at 80 to 85 percent of his full capacity, he said. Even as he expressed satisfaction with how he felt – “I’m super excited,” Smoltz said – he stressed patience.

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“I’m not going to gauge anything on my results because of what I’m trying to accomplish,” Smoltz said. “I know there’s a danger in playing it forward. I know there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“That’s what I’ve been most proud of, honestly. I’m not a guy that stays patient. I want to get out there and push the envelope a little bit. But I’ve really been staying true to what they want me to do. There’s no advantage to going faster. Now that we’re getting closer, I have to make the most work in the shortest period of time.”

To pitch effectively, Smoltz said, he needs to be able to put a pitch where he wants eight of 10 times. Right now, he said, he’s doing it five of 10. But he still has mechanics identical to his pre-surgery form, and today he had a good feel for all of his pitches – two different fastballs, a splitter, a curveball, a slider, and a changeup.

Smoltz will continue to throw in the bullpen every three days in preparation for a rehab start in late April. He once looked forward to milestones like throwing 100 feet and then 120 feet, “so I do have little goals, little agendas that I’m meeting,” Smoltz said.

The difference between today and Wednesday, Smoltz said, was in how he felt. He described that first session as “awkward,” and throwing a baseball usually doesn’t feel awkward for a Hall of Fame pitcher. Today’s session felt back to normal.

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“I’m staying right in the timeframe that I want to be in, the way the ball’s coming out of my hand,” Smoltz said. “I gauge things a whole lot different than what people would gauge them based on looking. I know what I want to do based on the amount of years I’ve been doing this. I’m super-excited about today. Try not to get too carried away.”