Smoltz opens with a real stinker

John Smoltz's return to the Braves rotation for the first time since 2001 was nothing short of a nightmare.

Originally Published: April 5, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- We can think of a few other years when it wouldn't exactly have been top-of-SportsCenter material for John Smoltz to work 1 2/3 innings on Opening Day.

This, however, wouldn't be one of those years.

Nope, this was different. When Smoltz headed for the mound in Florida on Tuesday, it wasn't the eighth inning. And it wasn't the ninth inning, either. In case you missed it this spring while surfing for steroid news, those innings aren't in Smoltz's job description anymore -- unless he manages to slalom through the first seven to get there.

John Smoltz
AP Photo/Alan DiazJohn Smoltz's ERA stands at 32.40 after getting knocked around on Tuesday.

So when Smoltz took that mound this time, he was making his first Opening-Day start since 1997. And he was making his first start, period, since June 9, 2001. He'd dreamed of this. He'd talked the Braves into this. He'd spent all spring pointing toward this.

Little did he realize it was about to turn into his ultimate careful-what-you-wish-for moment.

"It took a long time for this to happen," Smoltz would say, three frustrating hours -- and one 9-0 loss to the Marlins -- later. "And it sure was over quick."

It's a good thing we depend on Opening Day to remind us that, in baseball, just about anything is possible. Because otherwise, what happened to Smoltz on Tuesday would have made less sense than holding Opening Day in a place now called "Dolphins Stadium."

A whole lot of classic Opening-Day insanity broke out in that stadium Tuesday. And Smoltz was on the wrong end of all of it.

He arrived on the mound shortly after noted baseball great Dan Marino had finished throwing out the first ball -- twice (once with a baseball, once with a football). But amazingly, Smoltz didn't last much longer out there than Marino.

He faced 13 hitters. He got just five of them out. And as he stomped toward the shower stalls, the 7-0 score on the old Dolphins Stadium scoreboard must have made Marino feel right at home.

"There are certain things you don't think are possible," Smoltz said afterward. "And doing that was one thing I didn't think was possible -- pitching an inning and two-thirds in my new job."

Almost nothing that happened to Smoltz in that inning and two-thirds even remotely resembled the stuff that used to happened to him in his old job, doing that dead-on Goose Gossage imitation he was getting so good at. Let's cite a few examples.

• In Smoltz's 3½ years as a reliever, he faced the Marlins 29 times -- and allowed zero runs (in 31 1/3 innings). He then gave up five runs in his first inning back in the rotation.

• During Smoltz's relief-pitcher gig, he made 241 regular-season appearances (249 if you count the postseason) -- and allowed zero grand slams. Naturally, it took him exactly seven hitters to serve up a slam as a starter (to Juan Encarnacion).

• How weird was it to see Smoltz give up seven runs in one day? Two years ago, he gave up nine runs (eight earned) all season in relief.

• And the 1 2/3 inning pitched next to Smoltz's name in the box-score line was about the only item on that line that looked vaguely familiar. It took him 41 pitches just to stagger through the first inning. He never threw that many in any regular-season relief appearance over the last three years.

Then again, he never was too sharp on 1,396 days' rest.

All you need to know about how hyped up Smoltz was about this game was that he flew eight members of his family in from Georgia so they wouldn't miss it.

"I had eight come in -- and eight go home early," he laughed. "I told them, 'You might as well leave and beat the traffic.' At least now my son will get a good night's sleep for school."

How good a night's sleep Smoltz was about to get, on the other hand, was a whole 'nother matter. He knows there are people out there watching him, judging him, waiting to see if he really can recapture the magic he spun as a starter in the early and mid-'90s.

He could only imagine what those people would think of that 1 2/3-6-7-6-2-1 line they would see in their box scores Wednesday morning.

"The biggest thing I have to remember over the course of a season," he said, "is, I can't get caught up in what other people think. But this is the worst feeling in the world. I'm not going to hide that."

He is the last man standing from an era of brilliance for his franchise that began another lifetime ago. And this was the year he was going to return to his rightful spot at the top of the rotation, where he would team with Tim Hudson to front the NL East's most formidable rotation.

And Tuesday was the day it was all going to begin -- against a Marlins team many people were picking to dethrone these Braves. Against a lineup that had added Carlos Delgado and was suddenly being viewed as potentially the most difficult to face in the league.

So there was Smoltz in the bottom of the first -- one out, two men on base, Delgado at the plate. And there he was, reaching back to do what he did as a closer for three astonishing years -- getting that inning-turning strikeout of Delgado on three straight monster splitters.

This is the worst feeling in the world. I'm not going to hide that.
John Smoltz

He sure didn't look like a man who was about to self-destruct. But then here came the Marlins, to remind him -- and the world -- what they can be at their best.

Mike Lowell dueled Smoltz for 10 grueling pitches, stayed alive with four two-strike foul balls and then bounced a 95-mph fastball into left for an RBI single.

Then it was Paul Lo Duca's turn. He got behind, 1-and-2, fouled off two pitches and then singled to load the bases.

Which brought up Encarnacion, who squashed a high 1-and-0 fastball 422 feet. Over the Teal Curtain in left-center. Almost off the auxiliary scoreboard beneath the Nick Buoniconti sign. And this day would never be the same.

Encarnacion was the first player on any team to hit a grand slam in the first inning of the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, since John Jaha did it for the Brewers in 1995. And incredibly, it came against a pitcher who hadn't given up a slam since May 14, 1994 -- more than 400 trips to the mound ago.

"Is that right?" gulped Braves manager Bobby Cox. "So we set a record, at least. If you're going to lose like this, you might as well set a record."

Well, it wasn't exactly a record. But it wasn't exactly normal, either. And neither was what came next.

Smoltz wriggled out of the first inning -- but then kicked off the second by walking the opposing pitcher, Josh Beckett (who, in other news, survived a rocky first inning to spin off six fabulous shutout innings).

That walk then started a rally which Delgado finished with a two-run single off a hanging splitter (the first of four hits Delgado would get in his raucous Marlins debut). And as 57,403 teal lovers exploded in a euphoria they never saw coming in a John Smoltz start, out paced Cox to pull the plug on Smoltz's day -- a day in which he got fewer outs than he'd gotten in 16 different relief appearances these last few years.

Asked how surprised he'd been by what he'd seen, Cox replied: "I'm surprised when John ever gives up a run, actually."

Cox mentioned how he'd watched Arizona's Javier Vazquez have a similar Opening-Day disaster on TV the day before.

"I would have bet $100,000 that Vazquez would have pitched more than 1 2/3, and I would have bet the same on John -- $100,000," Cox said. "Or a million, even. If I had a million, I would have bet it."

Good thing, we observed, he isn't a betting man.

"Not really," Cox chuckled, "because I'd win a lot more."

And so will his ace, you realize. Smoltz recalls all too well that almost three years ago to the day, he'd had an even worse day, against the Mets -- allowing eight runs in two-thirds of an inning in his second outing of the year. It doesn't get any uglier than that, he figures.

"After that game, I didn't even want to show my face for four days," Smoltz said. "It was amazing that after that game, I still managed to finish with a 3-something ERA."

Well, he has a lonnngggg way to go to reach the 3-somethings after this one, too -- considering his new ERA is a scenic 32.40. But he didn't sound like a man who couldn't wait to turn on his computer so he could see what that number looked like.

"If I focus on my ERA right now," Smoltz said, "I'd be an idiot."

"I've had so many games in my long career, that's kept me from saying it can't get any worse," Smoltz philosophized. "But one thing I'll always believe is to not hide my head in the sand, to stand up to the criticism, to stand up to the bad games and know I'll be out there next time, trying to grind it out again."

After that game against the Mets in 2002, by the way, he roared back to give up one run in his next 12 appearances. So there's a pretty good chance it won't ever get any worse than this. He'll probably even win another game somewhere along the line. And so will that team he pitches for.

"The good news," Cox quipped, "is that Bud's going to let us finish our season."

And usually, when the Braves are allowed to finish their season, we know exactly how they finish it. But on this day, on this season, they couldn't have possibly drawn up a less usual way to start it.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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