Monday, August 24, 2009

Sometimes your heart is broken

I don't think I've been as excited about a signing as I was when the Sox signed John Smoltz in the off-season. I'd followed his career for years - the Scenic City is nearly a suburb of Atlanta, so all Atlanta sports get top billing on the local news. Folks around here couldn't believe that the Braves cut Smoltzy lose - and most were interested to see how he'd perform in the AL and as he recovered from shoulder surgery.

I followed his progress all spring and into early summer. I just knew his experience would make him an important figure in the clubhouse, and I witnessed some of his leadership in Detroit in June. Before each game, there would be Smoltz out in left field with Jonathan Papelbon, talking, discussing, coaching. Sometimes they were joined by pitching coach John Farrell, or one of the other veteran pitchers like Wakefield. But you had a sense Smoltz was giving Paps the benefit of his experience as a closer, advice that the brash young closer needs to hear.

Then, suddenly, it looked like he was really going to pitch for the Sox. And - miraculously - his first start was scheduled for a game I was going to be attending. Not only attending, but sitting in a seat right behind home plate. I order my shirt from the Yawkey Way store, charged the camera batteries, and waited to see him in action.

Smoltzy got shelled early in that first start in DC, but then settled in nicely. He ended his outing by striking out the side. My heart soared. This looked good. But then came his other starts. He'd give us a few good innings, then fall apart for one inning. After getting shelled by the Yankees, the Sox had to take a step back and reassess. It looked like the bullpen might be the best place for him, and they offered him that option.

But Smoltz had other ideas. He felt he still had it in him to start. And he found a team willing to take that gamble: the St Louis Cardinals. He started his first game for them this weekend - and set a new Card record for consecutive strike outs, getting the win.

I'm happy (somewhat) for him, but his performance raises a ton of questions. It's too early to say "He's back," certainly. But what does this say about the state of the National League? If the corpse of John Smoltz can beat your team, wow. And it again shows the supremacy of the hitting in the American League. Pitchers of a certain age would do well to watch this as well - it looks like their agents need to start negotiation with the Senior Circuit.

Time will tell how this plays out. We need to see him in another game, because I suspect adrenalin and pride played huge roles in this performance. Plus, they were playing the Padres! And was he really tipping his pitches, as some were suggesting today. If so - why didn't the Sox and John Farrell pick up on this? I can't imagine that such a quick fix was all he needed.

Meanwhile, for me, the feel-good story of the season didn't end the way I had hoped and planned - with Smoltz pitching for the Red Sox in the World Series. But perhaps we will face him there - and kick his butt back into retirement!

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