Bullpen is 'next best thing' for Smoltz

The home-team bullpen at Turner Field sits 400 feet from home plate, just beyond the right-center-field power alley. But for the newest occupant of that bullpen, a fellow named John Smoltz, it's a far longer journey than that.

It's a journey not just of the feet, but of the mind.

It's been 44 months since Smoltz last hung out in that bullpen. Which means it's also been 44 months since he forced his way out of that 'pen, after four consecutive frustrating Octobers spent sitting around waiting to feel relevant.

So if John Smoltz is back in that bullpen now -- and he'll be out there Monday night, for the first time since Game 2 of the 2004 NLDS, following his escape from the disabled list -- you know there can be only one reason:

He had no other choice.

"I'm just at the mercy of time, and I've run out of certain options, and I'm learning not to pout about it," Smoltz said recently, in a soul-baring conversation inside the visitors' clubhouse in Philadelphia. "This is what happens when you pitch down the road that I've had to pitch. ... And I'm not going to lie. I'm getting tired of pitching in pain. And if it continues, there's not going to be much left for me."

The pain in Smoltz's right shoulder has led him to this fork in his career, at age 41. It's a road he hoped he would never have to take again. But his shoulder had other ideas.

No, this sure wasn't the script he'd written for himself. That script had 35 healthy starts in it, followed by four or five more in October, followed by a ring on his finger and some long, hard thinking about the future.

The Braves were big fans of that script themselves -- to the point that, when Smoltz first said publicly that he would return as a reliever, manager Bobby Cox wasn't ready to sign off on that. So Smoltz had to tell his manager: There was no other alternative.

"I told Bobby, 'If I could do it [i.e., start], I'd do it -- but I just can't do it,'" Smoltz said. "I mean, realistically, if you look closely at the [five] starts I made, I was barely skating by. Even though I was getting good results, I was barely getting to the fifth inning."

The pain was so excruciating in that last start -- April 27 in New York -- that you could see it in John Smoltz's eyes, read it in his body language, feel it through your TV screen. He walked off the mound that day after four messy innings, knowing he had reached a crossroads. And none of the options were good.

"Obviously," he said, "if I had two or three years left on my contract [instead of four months], I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. Surgery -- that would be an option. Or I'd possibly sit as long as I need to sit just to ensure those other years."

But since this is not simply the end of his contract but, most likely, the end of his Hall of Fame career, sitting made as little sense as that surgeon's knife. So if he couldn't sit, and he couldn't blow off the season with a trip to the operating room, and he couldn't even make it through the fifth inning every five days, what else was there?

There was only this. There was only the long trek back to that bullpen, accompanied by a brand new drop-down, three-quarters delivery that has "survival" written all over it.

"Basically," he said, "I'm just trying to find a way to help. You know, I would give anything if you could tell me this was my last year and I could make the rest of my starts. If I could, I would be ecstatic, but it's not going to be the case. So this is the next best thing."

The words and the tone in his voice imply that he knows this is The End. But Smoltz isn't ready to say that yet, either -- not until he's totally convinced.

"I'm not totally convinced, no," he said. "I learned a lesson a long time ago that when you think you're heading in a certain direction, things can change. That happened in 2001, the first time [he went to the bullpen]. Then [these last four years] I was just so happy to be back in the starting rotation. But it didn't work out. And so my same approach in 2001 is the same approach I'm having now, seven years later: Let me go to the 'pen and see what I can do."

So you won't hear him uttering that R word yet -- not until he does it and sees it and lives it for the rest of this year.

"I don't want to commit either way right now because there's a lot of time left," Smoltz said. "When I say it [that R word], I'll be absolutely, 100 percent convinced one way or the other. And I'm not right now."

But he is convinced his team needs to make its move. And with him and his two late-inning compadres, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez, all returning from various health issues at about the same time, this is a critical juncture in the Braves' season.

So the thought of having those two and John Smoltz waiting in that bullpen is a thought that brightens the look on every face in that clubhouse.

"When he was out there before, we had the closest thing to Mariano Rivera that you could have," said Chipper Jones. "I mean, when he came in, the game was over. So I certainly like our chances when we're handing the ball to him at the end of the ball game."

Maybe closing was never Smoltz's favorite niche in life. But during 2001-04, he was as dominating as any closer in this hemisphere. Only Rivera saved more games (171) than he did (154). And Smoltz actually beat The Great Mariano in strikeouts per nine innings, strikeout-walk ratio and WHIP.

Looking back on those years now, Smoltz says: "I enjoyed it. I embraced it." What he didn't do was prefer it to starting -- and he never will. But the irony is that those years in the bullpen may have cemented his trip to Cooperstown -- a trip that his first decade as a starter hadn't locked up.

"What didn't sit well with me," he said, "is when everyone tried to justify that role as my ticket to the Hall of Fame. I kept trying to say over and over again, 'I don't care about that, or about setting up standards so I can make it.' All I ever cared about was having another ring on my finger. But what it resulted in, three years in a row, was not a lot of innings in October. So I felt like I made the right decision coming back [to starting], because it really panned out."

Yeah, you might say that. In his three-plus years back in the rotation, Smoltz led all NL starters in strikeout-walk ratio (3.76 whiffs for every walk). And his ERA (3.18) was just a fraction behind the only two NL starters who beat him in that department -- Jake Peavy (3.13) and Brandon Webb (3.18).

Even this year, pitching in agony, you needed an electron microscope to see his ERA (0.78 ERA) after four starts. And he'd piled up 31 strikeouts in only 23 innings. There he was, about to turn 41. His shoulder felt as if it was about to spontaneously combust. And he was still as unhittable as ever. Incredible.

Even though he was in all that pain that entire first month, his slider was never better. And he'd admit that. He was still throwing his fastball at 94-95 (mph), and his slider was almost 90, and tight and sharp. It was amazing to see.

--Braves GM Frank Wren

"You know the interesting thing," said Braves GM Frank Wren, "is that even though he was in all that pain that entire first month, his slider was never better. And he'd admit that. He was still throwing his fastball at 94-95 (mph), and his slider was almost 90, and tight and sharp. It was amazing to see."

So will he return now with the same slider, the same stuff, the same aura? No one around the Braves has any idea. They just know this was the only way they were ever going to see him on a mound again.

"It just gives the club a chance to know up front that if they need to go get somebody [to start], whether it's in the minor leagues or somewhere else, they can do that," Smoltz said. "But to leave it in limbo, for me to go, 'Just give me another month,' I don't think that's fair. I think that would be kind of self-serving. And that's why at the beginning, I had kind of a bad taste in my mouth. And then I said, 'Wait a minute. This is a bonus.' Rather than saying, 'Hey, the season is lost,' at least I can do this."

Where it's leading, he isn't sure, and they aren't sure. There was a time when Smoltz held out the possibility he could still find a way to gut his way back into the rotation in September and/or October. Now he admits that would take "a miracle." So he has convinced himself to take whatever he can get and help however he can help.

He knows now he can't possibly pitch the 200 innings it would take to vest his $14-million option for next season. So if this is it, the good news is that it sets the stage for the happiest post-retirement story line he could possibly write -- entering the Hall of Fame five years from now on the same day as his buddies, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.

"I don't think people realize that in all those years together, we never talked about it," Smoltz said. "We never orchestrated anything in our careers. In some ways, it would be pretty cool for each of us to have our own day. But you know what? If it works out that way, great. I can certainly see why people would want to see it.

"The beauty of those two guys [Maddux and Glavine] is that for so long they were pretty much automatic [Hall of Famers]. I don't know if they ever take the time to think about it, but I never have. I don't know that there has been any one of these so-called accomplishments that have come along where I've said, 'One day, I'm going to be in the Hall of Fame.'"

Well, if that's the case, then we'll just say it for him. After 210 wins and 154 saves and however many of both he might still add to his page in the encyclopedia, John Smoltz is going to the Hall of Fame.

Just not yet.

First, he has another journey to make -- a journey back to the same bullpen from whence he came. A journey of the heart. A journey of the mind. And a journey into one final chapter of history for one of the most unusual and talented pitchers of all time.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.