Different Smoltz, in different uniform, makes return

Updated: June 24, 2009

Al Bello/Getty Images

John Smoltz makes his debut with the Red Sox on Thursday against the Nationals.

The starts when I was an older player were more special for me than any in my career. I knew there was a chance that any one of them might be my last.

At some point recently that had to have crossed the mind of John Smoltz, who will be making his first start Thursday night for the Red Sox since major shoulder surgery. I can still remember looking down at the mound after coming off the disabled list and thinking what a blessing it was for me to be able to pitch in the big leagues again.

Smoltz's stuff won't be the same as it once was and it's hard to imagine anybody really expects it to be. But, from the neck up at least, Smoltz will be as good as he's ever been. He knows how to pitch. He's not going to try to dominate with his fastball anymore. He'll go to that slider. That has always been the key pitch in his arsenal. He could throw it for a strike any time he wanted; on a 3-0 count to a good hitter or on a 3-2 count with the bases loaded to pretty much anybody. I'll be watching the game and that will be the thing I'll look for -- if that slider is as automatic as it has been in the past, he'll be successful. It won't matter much what the velocity on his fastball is. We know it won't be 96 mph anymore; it may be in the range of 88-92 mph, but that should be fine.

Speaking from experience, I think there is no question Smoltz will be motivated. At the end of 1991, the Cubs showed me the door. They went in another direction, as have the Braves with Smoltz. When I left Chicago, I went to Baltimore and I remember in spring training having the feeling that I had something to prove. When you have a veteran with ability and strong desire, that's a strong combination. I threw a complete-game shutout in the first game ever at Camden Yards and went on to start 35 more games that season. I was as motivated as I'd ever been. Of course, I was able to stay healthy, which will be a key for Smoltz. But the motivation to prove to your new teammates, the new fans, yourself and the team that cut ties with you that you are still capable is a powerful thing.

Boston could have something special there. Smoltz's career changed when Greg Maddux came to the Braves and struck a bond. That's when Smoltz took it to another level. He is one of those guys who would fit in anywhere, and the young pitchers on that Red Sox staff will get themselves a second pitching coach with him in the clubhouse on a regular basis now.

He will fit in perfectly, somewhere behind the two aces, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, in the rotation. Boston has the deepest bullpen in baseball right now, and at this stage of his career, that's a big deal for Smoltz. He used to be the horse in the Braves' rotation, but now he's playing a different role. Still, it's one that could make a big difference for the Red Sox if everything comes together.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: June 23 | June 22 | June 21 | June 18 | June 17

TOUCH 'EM ALL

Touch 'Em AllWho went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and on the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page.

For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Home Run Tracker
NAME HR OPPPITCHER SITUATION
A. Hill, Tor16CinArroyoBot 1: 0-0, 0 Outs. 1 on.
V. Wells, Tor7CinArroyoBot 1: 0-0, 0 Outs. None on.
A. Lind, Tor15CinArroyoBot 1: 3-1, 0 Outs. 1 on.
J. Gomes, Cin3TorRichmondTop 2: 2-2, 1 Outs. None on.
P. Burrell, TB2PhiBlantonBot 2: 0-1, 1 Outs. 1 on.
D. Ortiz, Bos7WasStammenTop 4: 3-2, 2 Outs. 2 on.
M. Cabrera, Det15ChCHardenBot 4: 2-1, 0 Outs. None on.

The complete list of Wednesday's homers

ON DECK: THURSDAY'S BEST MATCHUPS

Cardinals at Mets, 1:10 p.m. ET

The only non-interleague game on the schedule features a pair of former Cy Young winners, with Chris Carpenter going for the Cardinals and Johan Santana pitching for the Mets. Santana is coming off a pair of losses, while Carpenter is coming off a strong 7 2/3-inning start in a win against Kansas City.

Dodgers at White Sox, 2:05 p.m. ET

Since losing a pair of starts at the end of May, Clayton Kershaw is 3-0 in four starts. Clayton Richard's outings have been short lately; he has not pitched more than 5 1/3 innings since May 29, a stretch of four outings.

Phillies at Rays, 7 p.m. ET

The Phillies and Rays have split the first two games of this World Series rematch, and it has been an odd start. Philadelphia hammered David Price for 10 runs in the opener, then scored just one run in the second game. What happens on the third night?

For the rest of Thursday's schedule, click here.

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BBTN ON THE AIR: THURSDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
12 a.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Steve Berthiaume
Analysts: Tim Kurkjian, Eduardo Perez

BBTN MINUTE: SMOLTZ RETURNS

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he looks at John Smoltz, who will be making his debut with the Red Sox on Thursday. Smoltz had spent his entire big league career in the NL with Atlanta, so the fact that he'll make his first start as an AL pitcher in an interleague series will help ease the transition:

John Smoltz
Most wins vs. opponent
Nationals 21
Reds 19
Mets 18
Astros 16
Dodgers 16
Padres 16

Smoltz and the Red Sox face the Nationals at 7:05 p.m. ET. Smoltz will be making his 467th career start; his opponent, Washington's Jordan Zimmermann, will be making his 12th.

WEB GEMS

WEDNESDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
FieldsJosh Fields has struggled this season with the White Sox, and it has cost him his job at third base. On Thursday, playing first to give Paul Konerko a night off, Fields hit a pair of homers and drove home three runs in the White Sox's 10-7 win against the Dodgers.
WORST
Bradley• The Cubs weren't without chances in their 5-3 loss against the Tigers. However, the offense went 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position and left 13 on base in their third consecutive loss. Milton Bradley twice struck out with runners in scoring position, the final time coming with two on in the ninth.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Chris Carpenter Cardinals right-hander Chris Carpenter is on fire since his return from the disabled list (4-1 with a 1.85 ERA).

Carpenter made only four starts over 2007 and 2008. He won his first start of 2009, but then left his second start early with what was later diagnosed as a left oblique tear. He returned from his latest injury with a win over the Cubs on May 20. Since returning, he has had the best 1-2-3 inning percentage among all pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched (58.2 percent). His work with off-speed pitches has driven his success this year, as he entered the day Wednesday ranked in the top 10 in batting average against, slugging percentage and well-hit average.

Carpenter and the Cardinals conclude their series with the New York Mets on Thursday night at Citi Field.

Chris Carpenter
Opponents vs. non-fastballs
Carpenter NL rank
BA .127 2
SLG .215 10
Well-hit avg. .076 6

-- ESPN Stats & Information

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF THURSDAY'S GAMES

Fantasy AJ Mass examines the 13 games on Thursday's slate.

Mass ranks the pitchers scheduled to take the mound and supplies loads of other information that could help shape your roster for Thursday. Daily Notes