LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Last spring, John Smoltz issued daily updates on the state of his elbow.
This year it's his right thumb.
Surgery to remove half the nail last month resulted in a staph infection from which he hasn't fully recovered. He missed all of Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone's early throwing program and figures he's at least two weeks behind other pitchers.
"The greatest pain I've ever gone through in my life," said Smoltz of the staph infection. "I wouldn't have believed you could feel that bad. I really didn't sleep for a month. I'd sleep for three hours at a time. For an eight-day period, I couldn't function because of the IVs and the medication. I apologized to my wife."
Smoltz's nail had troubled him for years. It grew into the skin on the side of his thumb, causing discomfort and pain. He decided on surgery after it started bothering him again last month as he was throwing in preparation for spring training.
Doctors removed half the nail, cleaned out an infected area, and told Smoltz he should be ready at the start of spring training. But soon after he started throwing again the pain returned, and doctors cleaned out the thumb again.
Then the pain became unbearable.
"The only way I could do anything was after I got a series of shots to block the pain," Smoltz said. "I'm sure I easily put over 1,000 miles on my car going from doctor to doctor and then to the hospital. If that had happened right now, I'm out for two months."
Smoltz's thumb isn't ready yet for the rigors of daily throwing. He played long toss to build arm strength during Friday's first workout for pitchers and catchers, but he's not expected to pitch from a mound until next week.
"There's no rush," Mazzone said. "We're not in a hurry. Whenever he tells me his thumb is OK."
Smoltz says he can pitch without the nail, but the skin around his thumb is still tender. It will take several months for the remainder of his nail to grow back and doctors are closely monitoring his recovery.
How Smoltz's recovery affects his preparation for the season remains to be seen. In his new role as closer, he doesn't need to get ready to pitch 200 innings, but he needs to build arm strength to protect against a sore arm and shoulder.
"Right now I can't throw without something (protecting) my thumb," he said. "For all the times I've said spring training is too long, now I'll have time to get ready. I'm certainly behind, but I think I'll be fine once we get going."
As painful as the last six weeks have been for Smoltz, the true test of his grit was a ban on his favorite off-field activity.
"No golf for 35 days," he said. "I almost died."
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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