Originally created 08/27/99

Faith key to Smoltz success



ATLANTA -- John Smoltz is so different that he's a pitcher who believes there is such a thing as a good walk.

He believes it is why Atlanta Braves opponents still can't figure out the 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-hander. He believes it is why a 32-year old with a bum elbow can sometimes remain almost unhittable. He believes it is why his career has survived two arm surgeries and four trips to the disabled list. Most of all, he simply believes.

It is his Christian walk that Smoltz credits with helping him through a sidearm transition that perhaps could prolong his career. He has gone from using an overhand delivery to relying on an overhead one.

"I truly have tried to figure everything out, and in that process I've tried to have every plan ready. I wasn't really allowing that day-by-day faith to take place," Smoltz said. "I'm not in control with what goes on, and I'm at total peace that if the game is taken away from me tomorrow or whatever comes, I without doubt know I can handle it through God's peace and grace. I was trying to be totally prepared and have five plans and exhaust every one of them. And I wasn't getting any answers. I wasn't getting any fixes."

Smoltz thinks he has found his fix: When he stopped worrying about results and began remembering his favorite Bible passage (the fifth verse of the 15th chapter of the book named, coincidentally, John), his season began turning around. Relaxing through what that verse describes as abiding in Christ, Smoltz settled down and settled on a new approach.

A new sidearm delivery has Smoltz's already formidable pitches darting in angles that he and National League hitters are unaccustomed to seeing. When he began using the delivery three starts ago, Smoltz was sacrificing velocity on his pitches because of the more comfortable arm position. But now, with less stress on his elbow and in his life, the speed of Smoltz's pitches, almost inexplicably, is improving.

"Seriously, my faith has played a big part in it," Smoltz says. "I'm not so concerned about what everybody thinks. Saying that, it allows my mind to concentrate on what I'm doing and not be afraid to fail. It's easy to say you're not afraid to fail, but to go out and actually be put in circumstances where everyone second-guesses you or everyone, say, criticizes you, it's very difficult.

"I've seen guys not want to play when they're hurt because they're not at their best. I make no excuses, and because of that, whether it be pitching in October or experimenting pitching, I'm not afraid to try something."

With Tuesday's 6-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, Smoltz finally improved to 9-6 with his first win since June 18. After the game, he described himself as "super happy" with the transition and astounded that his control has remained impeccable. This, after practicing his new delivery in only two side sessions.

"It's amazing that he could pull that off," said pitching coach Leo Mazzone.

"He's virtually starting over right now," said teammate Tom Glavine. "In the short term, what ends up suffering a little bit is you might make one mistake here or one mistake there that costs you personally a decision in the ball game. But as long as you're going out there giving your guys a chance to win and your team is winning, then I think that's what you try to focus on."

In fact, Smoltz's gutsy performance against the Reds on Tuesday, when he allowed only four hits in eight innings, was a continuation of Smoltz doing just as Glavine said. Counting the two earned runs Smoltz allowed the Reds, he has yielded only 10 total in his past five starts. And remember, that spans only three starts and two side sessions as a sidearmer.

The new Smoltz has left opponents with the same old feelings. Reds All-Star Barry Larkin gushed over the velocity and movement of Smoltz's pitches after Tuesday's game.

"I didn't expect to see what I saw," Larkin said.

And second baseman Keith Lockhart said that on the first day Smoltz unveiled his new delivery, Houston Astros leadoff hitter Craig Biggio saw Smoltz warming up before the game and turned with an incredulous look toward slugger Jeff Bagwell.

Against the Astros, Smoltz did not even reach a three-ball count against one of baseball's most formidable lineups. He received advice from teammates Greg Maddux and Glavine on a few new grips.

"You're going to have some days where you're frustrated, but I don't let that frustration ruin that day and a bunch of other days," Smoltz said. "Now I'm at a point where I'm completely at peace with whatever is about to happen. I'm doing what I love to do and there's been some hurdles in the way. And you know what? I trust that in my walk I know it's going to be OK. ... My eyes aren't focused on what's behind me, they're on what's ahead of me."