Commentary

Smoltz standing at uncertain crossroads

Another rough outing leaves question marks about right-hander's future

Originally Published: August 6, 2009
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- About 30 minutes before the first pitch on Thursday night, John Smoltz was in the depths of this new stadium, tossing a football, his spirals tight, his throws aggressive. It was a way to loosen up for his eighth start this season, against the Yankees in their new home. Unfortunately for Smoltz and the Red Sox, the tossing, be it footballs or, later on in the night, baseballs, did not work out very well.

On a night when a full moon shadowed right field, Smoltz, 42, who possesses an arm that's logged more than 3,400 major league innings, walked off the mound having allowed seven of his last eight batters to reach base, his ERA to bloat to 8.32 and his future to come into question.

"I'm pretty humbled right now," Smoltz said. "Time may not be on my side if this continues. I can't keep doing what I'm doing."

He never said the word "retire"; he never said he was thinking it was over. But when Smoltz was told cameras captured him looking pensive in the dugout, he admitted he couldn't share all he was thinking. When asked if he's confident he'll make his next start, Smoltz had a curious, if not understandable, answer.

"I just want to wake up and go to work tomorrow and see what happens," he said.

[+] EnlargeJohn Smoltz
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIJohn Smoltz gave up nine hits and eight runs in only 3 1/3 innings of work in Thursday's 13-6 loss against the Yankees.

He lasted just 3 1/3 innings, but it was an outing full of damage. Boston trailed 5-3 when he left and lost 13-6 to the Yankees, who up until that point had been winless in eight games against the Red Sox this year. The three runners Smoltz left behind all scored. So, for the night, he gave up eight earned runs, walking four. His ineffective outing also helped New York build a 3½-game lead in the AL East on its archrival, who now may be down a starting pitcher.

"Once it went, it seemed to go in a hurry," said manager Terry Francona, who looked downtrodden. "We have a lot of things we need to talk about. When I get done answering questions, I will give [general manager] Theo [Epstein] a call."

This was not how it was supposed to work out. The Red Sox's problem was supposed to be similar to the Phillies: too many starters, not enough spaces. The Smoltz signing, at $5.5 million for this season, was thought of as a keen move. It would not pay off right away (with Smoltz rehabbing his shoulder after surgery last year), but he would be a welcome addition to Boston's staff later in the year.

"The reason that we're acquiring John Smoltz is to put him in a position to get back to 100 percent and dominate in the most important times of year for us,'' said Epstein on the day Smoltz was introduced. "That works backward from October, the stretch run, the second half of the season."

It's now the second half of the season and soon it will be the stretch run. Whether Smoltz will continue to be a member of this staff is now in question, though he said he'd be willing to go to the bullpen as long as he can help the team win. Mark Teixeira, a teammate of Smoltz's last year in Atlanta, said he watched as Smoltz battled his shoulder injury back then.

"I have more respect for John Smoltz because he never gives up," Teixeira said. "Smoltzie is just … what a competitor."

When asked whether Smoltz had much left, Teixeira declined to speculate.

It now comes to this: The longest Smoltz has gone this season is six innings, and he's allowed five or more runs in six of his eight starts. The Yankees gave Smoltz one turn through the lineup and then they clobbered him.

"We're swinging the bats really well right now," Yankees reserve Jerry Hairston Jr. said. "Maybe it was him running into a hot team. I'll tell you this: What I find amazing is that veteran players always find a way to come back."

This past offseason, Smoltz threw those same spiral footballs, taping it on video and having his agent send it to prospective teams. He wanted to show that his traveled, surgically repaired arm still could crank out a ball, even if it was made of pigskin.

That video, in part, lured the Red Sox down to Smoltz's Atlanta home this offseason. Eventually, they signed him. The time for showing what he can do with a football has run out; the question now is whether the same can be said for what he can do with a baseball.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.

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