Originally created 09/26/03

Smoltz key to Braves' playoff hopes



ATLANTA -- During the nearly a month he was away, John Smoltz would stand in front of a mirror, a towel in his right hand, and try his best to recreate the feeling of throwing from a pitcher's mound.

It wasn't easy.

"My body was starting to go into its offseason mode," Smoltz said. "Everything was beginning to shut down. I didn't want it to get to that."

Neither did the Atlanta Braves, who knew Smoltz was the key to avoiding another postseason flop.

If the closer's elbow holds up, this perennial playoff team has a chance to finally win another World Series. If not, the Braves could be one series-and-out again.

"He's a tremendous notch in our belt," Chipper Jones said. "You're not going to be beating people 8-0 in the postseason. A lot of games are going to be 4-3, 3-2, stuff like that. If you can make it an eight-inning game, that's very important."

Smoltz was on the way to another record season when his long-suffering elbow began to act up again. The first clue came when he didn't pitch in three straight one-run games at San Francisco, all won by the Giants.

Finally, he went on the 15-day disabled list for what the Braves described as mild case of tendinitis. Just a little rest, that's all he needed.

Of course, it turned out to be more serious than the team let on. Smoltz was out 28 days, finally returning on the next-to-last weekend of the regular season.

No one was sure what to expect, but Smoltz has been overpowering in the first three appearances of this latest comeback. He retired seven straight batters, striking out the side Tuesday night to preserve a 2-0 victory over Montreal. It was his 45th save of the season, but the first in exactly a month.

"It's beautiful to see him out there," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "Man, those were some nasty splitters he was throwing."

Smoltz knows how important he is to the Braves psyche, even though a closer doesn't have much impact unless the starters and middle relievers do their jobs. The last two years, he didn't even get a chance for a save in either playoff series that ended Atlanta's season.

But there's a big mental edge entering the postseason with Smoltz as the closer instead of journeyman Will Cunnane, who filled while the big guy was on the DL.

Smoltz relishes the prospect of standing on the mound in Game 7 of the World Series, three outs away from a championship. He is confident that his elbow will hold up, pain and all.

"I want to answer the tough questions," he said. "I want to pitch in 11 (postseason) games and be able to say we won the World Series or we lost the World Series because of me. I would like that opportunity."

After pitching Tuesday, Smoltz wanted to give his elbow a couple of days of rest - the Braves were off Thursday - and see how it felt. He hopes to make one more appearance this weekend in the season-closing series at Philadelphia, then it's on the playoffs.

Atlanta is scheduled to open at home Tuesday against Houston or the Chicago Cubs.

"Even at 80 percent, John Smoltz is better than a lot of guys who are healthy," said 21-game winner Russ Ortiz, who will start Game 1 of the postseason.

After such a long layoff - Smoltz went two weeks without even throwing off a mound - it's difficult to regain that finely tuned edge that comes only with pitching on a regular basis.

He still isn't happy with the way the ball feels leaving his hand, though his mechanics held up better than expected because of the work he did in front of the mirror.

"I don't have to have my absolute 'A' game to get people out," Smoltz said confidently. "I'll leave the guesswork to everybody else. If teams think they can make me do something different, they're going to be in trouble. If they think they can make me throw 15 extra pitches, go right ahead and think that. Because I'm coming after you."

Before the elbow started hurting, Smoltz was a strong contender for his second Cy Young Award, the first coming in 1996 as a starter. He was on pace to challenge his 1-year-old NL record for saves (55) and maybe Bobby Thigpen's major league mark (57).

Now, the attention has shifted to Los Angeles closer Eric Gagne, who tied Smoltz's league record on Wednesday and was in position to knock off Thigpen, as well.

Oh, well.

Smoltz is focusing on other goals, such as keeping his ERA below 1.00. Going into the final weekend, it stands at 0.85.

"That would be incredible," said Smoltz, who has allowed just six earned runs in 63 1-3 innings.

His other numbers are just as incredible: 45 hits, seven unintentional walks, 70 strikeouts.

But Smoltz is more concerned with winning another World Series. The Braves - as all true baseball fans know without the least bit of prompting - have won 12 straight division titles and only one Series championship during that span. After this season, four key players (Gary Sheffield, Greg Maddux, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla) are set to become free agents.

"If we don't win this year, I think there's going to be some drastic changes," Smoltz said. "There's a sense of urgency that we've got to get it done."

With Smoltz on the mound, it seems a lot more possible.