MONTREAL -- Reviewing his first four starts, frustration creepsinto John Smoltz's voice and he grimaces.
By the numbers, he's been solid, each start a little bit betterthan the previous one. But behind the scenes is a different story.Years ago, before his latest elbow surgery, it used to take him 10minutes to warm up and feel loose. Now, it takes 20-30 minutes, and henever feels quite right.
"It's more or less an awareness that you've had surgery and whatyou've gone through," said Smoltz, describing how his elbow feels ashe pitches. "It's tough to get loose sometimes."
If his elbow doesn't improve, allow him to throw between starts,and pitch pain-free during starts, Smoltz said Wednesday he's unlikelyto return next season.
"Honestly, if this is as good as it gets, there won't be a nextyear," he said. "If it only gets back to where it was before thesurgery, I have nothing to prove. I'm not going to continue to pitch inthe fashion I did before the surgery. I don't know how much longer Ican go through it. There's a price, and you say, is it worth it?"
While his elbow is not paining him to the extent it did beforeligament replacement surgery in March 2000, not much else has changed.Smoltz has been forced to change his arm angle in his last two startsto compensate for his elbow, just as he did before the surgery. Theonly thing he hasn't done yet is break out his knuckleball.
"There's good days and bad days, and sometimes you've got to gowith whatever you think is going to get guys out," said Smoltz, whoadmits to inventing different deliveries as he pitches. "The other(arm) slot just wasn't working very well and I'm not going to fight it.
"I knew it wouldn't be perfect for awhile, but I'm disappointed inthe in-between (starts) process. I don't know from day to day what'sgoing to happen."
Smoltz has been unable to get much work done on the side betweenstarts, which has prevented him from polishing his pitches,particularly his slider. Still, in his last two starts, he's worked 121/3 innings and allowed 13 hits and five runs (3.65 ERA), with just onewalk and nine strikeouts.
Leadoff man Quilvio Veras was hit above his right elbow by a JavierVazquez pitch in the seventh inning Tuesday and missed Wednesday'sgame. Despite treatment by trainers, his elbow remained swollen and hecouldn't bend it.
Veras' injury forced Bobby Cox to install Rafael Furcal as theleadoff hitter and give Keith Lockhart just his 10th start at secondbase. That was bad news for the lineup, which had started to click withVeras and Furcal hitting 1-2.
"When they put me at leadoff, I started to feel morecomfortable," said Veras, who batted .216 as the No. 8 hitter, but hasbatted .333 since moving to leadoff on May 11. "I've got a better ideaof what I've got to do."
Furcal has experienced a similar rejuvenation at the plate sincemoving to No. 2. At No. 1, he was a .224 hitter; since moving in behindVeras, he's batted .305, and he entered Wednesday's game riding a10-game hitting streak.
Odalis Perez is emphatic in his belief he should be pitching everyfive days. But, as the fifth starter, his turn is frequently skippedbecause of days off, which has left him feeling frustrated.
"I don't want to pitch on eight days (rest)," said Perez, wholast started on May 29 and will face the Expos tonight. "I want topitch every five days. I want them to know that."
Perez says it's tough making an adjustment from pitching regularly,to pitching occasionally.
"Pitching every five days is better because you're concentratingon what you have to do," he said. "If you're not pitching every fivedays, you have to go back again, regroup your mind again, and there'stoo many things to do."
You hear Ozzie Guillen before you actually see him. His infectiouslaughter rings as loudly as a church peal, and then you see him, hisarm thrown around someone's shoulder, a familiar smile lighting hisface, and, of course, a torrent of words.
Guillen, one of the most popular Braves during his two years withthe team (1998-99), is back in the big leagues as the first basecoach-in-training with the Expos. The 16-year veteran, released by theDevil Rays at the end of spring training last March, despite a .391batting average, he was back in his native Venezuela when Expos managerJeff Torborg called and offered him a job last week.
"I was a real daddy for the first time in my career," Guillensaid of spending time with his family. "But this is a greatopportunity. Not too many guys have a chance to finish out theircareers and start coaching in the big leagues right away."
Guillen, who admits to having designs on managing someday, is hereas a liaison between Torborg and the Latin contingent in the Exposclubhouse. He can't help but have a positive effect on players likeVladimir Guerrero, Orlando Cabrera, Fernando Tatis and Jose Vidro,giving them the benefit of his experience and keeping players loose inthe clubhouse.
"You just try and make sure they have fun playing," Guillen said."(Coaching) is what I've been doing for the last three years. I was acoach making a lot of money. My title has changed, but I'm still thesame guy."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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