Braves' Smoltz to have season-ending shoulder surgery
ATLANTA -- John Smoltz knew the pain was too intense to keep pitching this season.
Now, the Atlanta Braves right-hander hopes to add one more comeback to his remarkable career.
Smoltz will undergo season-ending surgery on his ailing right shoulder next week, but the 41-year-old is not ready to concede that his next move will be retirement.
"I've pulled off a lot of miracles," Smoltz said Wednesday at a hastily called news conference before the Braves' game against the Florida Marlins. "I probably shouldn't have played this long. I'm looking forward to seeing if I can extend it."
The only pitcher in baseball history with 200 wins and 150 saves already has returned from four operations on his elbow, but it's highly improbable for someone his age to come back from a major procedure.
No wonder the news conference took on the tenor of a retirement announcement.
"This is a sad day for us in many ways," general manager Frank Wren said. "We don't know the outcome of the surgery, whether it will allow him to come back and pitch, or just allow him to go on with his life."
Still, Smoltz has defied the odds before.
"It wouldn't surprise me if he came back as a left-handed pitcher," said Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez, a former Braves coach.
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Smoltz's shoulder began hurting nearly a year ago during a start in Milwaukee. He's been on the disabled list three times since then and tried all sorts of radical solutions to cope with the pain.
He came up with a new routine at spring training, spending most of his time on the back fields pitching against minor leaguers. When the discomfort persisted through his first five starts, he decided to return to the closer role he held from 2001 to 2004, believing that fewer innings would help him get through the season.
But one inning against the Marlins on Monday night convinced him that it was futile to continue.
"I certainly was prepared for it. I never had two days in a row where I felt good," Smoltz said. "I realized it the next day. Actually, I realized an hour afterward that the pain was just too great and I couldn't continue."
Initially, the injury was diagnosed as severe inflammation; Smoltz isn't sure what the real problem is. He'll put his future in the hands of Dr. James Andrews, the noted sports surgeon who will perform the arthroscopic procedure in Birmingham, Ala.
From Start to Finish
John Smoltz's career can be compared with that of Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who also began primarily as a starter, then moved to the bullpen.
|K's per 9 IP||6.6||8.0|
"We won't know until they get in there," Smoltz said. "I'm sure when I wake up, the first question I'll ask is, 'What did you find?' I'll have no problem with whatever they tell me."
If nothing else, he's hoping for a better quality of life. Smoltz said it's been difficult to sleep, play with his children or just do ordinary chores around the house because of his aching shoulder.
"We're talking about enjoying life a little bit more than I've been able to enjoy it," he said. "It's very difficult. A shoulder is like a lower back problem; it puts you in a pretty bad mood. You use your shoulder for everything."
After those five starts -- in which he became the 16th pitcher in history to reach 3,000 strikeouts -- Smoltz hoped to make it through the rest of the season as a closer, using a new three-quarters throwing motion. He came off the disabled list Monday and immediately got a chance for his first save since 2004.
He couldn't hold a 4-3 lead, giving up three hits and two runs. Smoltz said his poor outing had nothing to do with the decision to have surgery.
"If I had struck out the side, we would still be having this press conference," he said. "It was just too much."
His loss is a huge blow to an Atlanta team already dealing with a rash of injuries to its pitching staff. The Braves went into Wednesday's game 3½ games behind Philadelphia in the NL East.
"Not having him at all for the rest of the season is devastating, flat out devastating," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Going into this season, I said there's one guy on this club we cannot do without. That's John Smoltz."
The Braves already lost Peter Moylan for the season; Mike Hampton has yet to pitch in a game after suffering yet another injury; and Mike Gonzalez is still on the mend from elbow surgery that kept him out most of 2007. Still, Atlanta has the NL's lowest team ERA with a 3.58.
"We have a lot of good pitching on this team," manager Bobby Cox said. "You never replace a Hall of Famer. You just can't do it. But we can put guys in there who can help us win."
Smoltz won the NL Cy Young Award in 1996 and has more postseason wins (15) than any other pitcher.
But he's been plagued by injuries throughout his 21-year career. Smoltz had his first elbow operation after a strike ended the 1994 season, and another arthroscopic procedure limited him to 26 starts in 1998.
Then, he missed the entire 2000 season recovering from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. After experiencing a setback, Smoltz switched to the bullpen midway through the following season, believing it would relieve the stress on his elbow.
He had 154 saves during his three-plus seasons as the closer, including an NL-record 55 in 2002.
Then, after yet another arthroscopic operation on his elbow, another change.
Deciding that pitching every fifth day would be better for his arm, Smoltz returned to the starting rotation. He pulled off the unprecedented move, going 44-24 the past three seasons. But the shoulder began hurting during a May 29, 2007, start at the Milwaukee, and the pain never went away.
Smoltz began this season on the DL, then pitched extremely well in his first four starts. But he lasted only four innings against the New York Mets on April 27, giving up seven hits and four runs.
That would be his final start of the season -- and possibly the last one of his career.
If Smoltz's career is over, he has no complaints. He got to spend his entire big league career with one team, and nearly all of it playing for the same manager.
"I gave it everything I had every single time I went out there," he said. "Whether I was 70 percent or 100 percent, I gave it everything I had."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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