News - Savvy in Savannah

Smoltz works his slider and his psyche

Savannah — John Smoltz is at peace. He is locked inside the tiny visitors clubhouse at aged Grayson Stadium with ice strapped to his right arm, autograph seekers pressed against the door and one of the Sand Gnats' four owners lurking in the corner. This guy already has pulled rank to have his wife offer a thoroughly uninspiring rendition of "America the Beautiful," and still, his face glows serenely.

In his second rehab start since being shut down during spring training with tendinitis in his surgically repaired right elbow, Smoltz has just gone five innings for the Class A Macon Braves, giving up four hits and a run on 63 pitches to the hometown Sand Gnats. He didn't allow a walk. He struck out the side in the bottom of the fifth (albeit after a lead-off double). But that is beside the point. Smoltz wasn't working on hitters. He was working on pitches, trying to relearn a game he hasn't played in more than a year.?

He worked his change-up hard, and got more velocity on his fastball as the game went on, according to the radar guns of the minor-league scouts sitting behind home plate. It wasn't popping every time, but he was bringing it with more consistency, which is the immediate goal.?

The curve is Smoltz's best pitch at the moment. His signature slider is a work in progress. He used to throw it extremely hard with an extreme amount of spin. "The trust factor's just not there right now," he says with a trace of wariness. Then he continues, confidently, "But it will be. I just need time on that pitch."?

He needs time on everything: covering the bases, backing up third on a throw from the outfield, the pick-off, calling the game.?

"The way I finished the game was a good indicator that I'm close," he says. "Not that striking out the side is an indicator, it's just that I made a lot of good pitches with a runner on second and nobody out."?

He's not in nine-inning shape yet, but Smoltz is determined to go at least six innings — he went six without pain two days later — when he returns to the Braves' rotation.?

This is what he comes back to: Kevin Millwood has an inflamed labrum in his right shoulder. Damian Moss has blood clots in his left arm, causing his fingers to turn blue. Odalis Perez says he doesn't know what he's doing on the mound. John Burkett says after a recent win that with a couple of hitters, he didn't know what he was doing. Tom Glavine isn't getting calls on the outside corner and, after two games over the last two weeks, Greg Maddux had this to say about himself: "I sucked."?

In the bullpen, the news isn't even that good. Especially since Bobby Cox, forced to make continuous pitching changes for the first time in 10 years, keeps bringing in the wrong guy at the wrong time.?

Remember when you thought the Braves were too pitching-heavy? Well, now that only Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan are hitting with runners in scoring position, and not consistently either, the pitching must be perfect. And here is Smoltz, on a 60-pitch limit against minor-leaguers. And he is calm.?

Calm, but not stupid. He brought his own baseballs. Minor league baseballs are different than Major League baseballs, not as uniform in shape or weight. Impossible to judge the progress of his slider using them.?

He is determined not to do too much, too soon. Informed that, while he was swatting Gnats, the Braves were blowing a 5-1 lead in San Diego, Smoltz's eyes widen. "They lost?" he cries. "They lost?"?

Then his face softens. The glow returns. He will make one pitch at a time, one batter at a time. He will have fun. He will know that sometimes he chooses the right pitches and sometimes he doesn't, and he won't feel like punching himself when he doesn't.?

It used to drive him wild when people said he didn't really have to pitch, with his overpowering stuff. "They can never not call me a pitcher anymore," he says softly. "Not after what I've been through the last year."?

He thinks that was bad? Wait'll he sees his run support.

A matter of degree — Why did Michael Vick's mother make him promise he'd go back to school for his degree? The rest of us had to graduate to earn a living. You'd think his $62 million contract would take care of that, wouldn't you??

And they wonder why their ratings are so low — Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez has been denied an exemption for the U.S. Women's Open. She's finished second in the event four times and she's only one of the greatest golfers of all time, male or female.?

This week's NBA role model -- The Sonics' Ruben Patterson enters a plea that acknowledges the evidence but doesn't admit guilt after being charged with attempted rape of his children's nanny.?

This week's NFL role model -- Cleveland Browns draft pick Jeremiah Pharms pleads not guilty to a charge of first-degree robbery. Says Rick Neuheisel, his coach at U of Washington, "We're going to talk again to our players about how to make good decisions."?

Fantasy league -- Which A-Rod would you rather have on your team: Alex Rodriguez or Andy Roddick?

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