WASHINGTON After reflecting on the three weeks of sleepless nights that followed his shoulder surgery, John Smoltz sounded as if he might be tossing and turning one more time this time out of sheer anxiousness over his first major league start for a team other than the Atlanta Braves.
Smoltz is scheduled to make his debut for the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night, facing the Washington Nationals at the end of a long rehab that has sidelined him from the big leagues for more than a year.
"I wish I could probably sleep here," Smoltz said Wednesday at Nationals Park, "and make sure I'm here tomorrow."
Smoltz's No. 29 jersey hung in a locker between the No. 49 of Tim Wakefield and the No. 34 of David Ortiz. Ortiz even helped shuffle the hoard of reporters into place for the start of Smoltz's remarks. The 42-year-old right-hander is the only pitcher to win 200 games and save 150, but he has never had a space to call his own in an American League clubhouse.
"This is not the old or the new or the done," Smoltz said. "It's just a new chapter in which when I have a baseball in my hand, I feel like I can make a pitch and do the things I have to do to take the sting out of the bat. And if that's the case, we'll progress and keep getting better every time out. But tomorrow is just one rung in the ladder to try and climb as far as I can to see how good I can be, and really at the end of the day to be in position to pitch in the playoffs."
Smoltz had shoulder surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder last June, eight days after his final game for the Braves. He became a free agent at the end of the season and signed a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Red Sox in January. He had a 1-1 record with a 2.63 ERA in six rehab starts, and, despite the possible jitters, is confident his comeback will be productive.
"It will be a success," Smoltz said, "and I came back with this mindset that it ain't about stories, it ain't about to say 'I can do it again.' This is about pitching and getting hitters out. The end result is going to be that, and three, four, five starts from now, I think you'll see why I feel the way I do."
Manager Terry Francona said Smoltz will be limited to 85-90 pitches on Thursday.
"He's gone through to lot to put himself in a position where I think he can help us win a lot of games," Francona said. "He wanted to pitch into the playoffs. I think he's tried to put himself into a position where that'll happen.
"I don't think you're going to see the 95, 96 (mph) anymore. That'll be one thing of interest to see how his velocity not only holds up, but does it increase, does it decrease? I don't think that right now is a concern. What he's been pitching in the minor leagues and holding is pretty good."
Pitching with more substance than speed is another reinvention for Smoltz, who went from outstanding starter to superb reliever and back for the Braves, adapting and overcoming along the way.
"I have enough pitches to get hitters out," he said. "And the stuff that everyone's talking about might be different, so be it, but I think the ability to pitch and get guys out will be the same."
Smoltz said the toughest part of his time away from the game were the nights when he couldn't find a comfortable sleeping position after his surgery. Now that the long wait it over, he's trying not to put too much emphasis on the first game back.
"Hopefully I learn from some of those past experiences of what I call two of the most anxious moments: first game as a closer and then my first game back as a starter after five years, neither of which did I do very well and both of those years turned out to be great years," Smoltz said. "So I'm not going to get too caught up in whether or not tomorrow is a success or a failure based on one start."
And just how will it feel to wear another uniform for the first time?
"That part will be different, but it won't be weird to be in a uniform throwing a baseball, I promise you that," he said. "When I'm on the mound I'm going to give it everything that I absolutely have, and I'll let everybody else determine what it is that I have."