- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

If this really is it for John Smoltz - if all that’s left to do is start sizing up his career and cranking out the extended eulogies - it’s a shame it’s happening this way.

News that the 41-year-old will have season-ending shoulder surgery surfaced last week, calling into question whether he will pitch again and truncating a season in which he had looked as nasty as he had in his 20s.

It wouldn’t be out of character for Smoltz to try to return from it next season because this is a pitcher who thrives on the moment. He wants to have the ball in his hands when it matters.

That’s what makes the possibility of the Braves right-hander’s career ending with inactivity so unsettling. Even this season, he still has been the same competitor, his sneer now a silver-specked reminder of the pitcher who, at age 24, matched Jack Morris zero for zero for 7 1/3 innings in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

Smoltz has crafted a remarkable three-act career, first as a linchpin of the Braves’ dominant rotation of the early 1990s. Then, after helping the team to its last World Series appearance in 1999, he missed most of the 2000 season with Tommy John surgery. That’s when his career entered its second phase, the one that makes Smoltz more unusual than any of the Hall of Famers he pitched with or against.

Instead of regaining his spot in the Braves’ rotation, Smoltz came back as a closer and performed that role at as high a level as it has ever been done. His 55 saves in 2002 set a National League record and landed him third in the Cy Young Award voting. He followed it with a combined 89 saves in 2003 and 2004 before deciding, at age 37, he wanted to re-enter the starting rotation.

This final stage of Smoltz’s career has been a reminder of how gracefully he has aged. He won a combined 44 games from 2005 to 2007, making two All-Star teams and finishing in the top 10 in Cy Young voting twice.

He became the 16th pitcher to strike out 3,000 batters in his career April 22 against the Nationals, who won the game 6-0 but still played the part of awestruck participants in history.

“That guy is good,” Felipe Lopez said after becoming Smoltz’s 3,000th victim that night. “He’s freaking nasty. He never follows a pattern. He changes it up.”

That’s the attribute about Smoltz - never following a pattern - that makes his career so hard to define. It can be done by statistics (he’s the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves), but at the same time, it can’t (he doesn’t have much chance of reaching the 300-win barrier and only has one Cy Young Award to his credit). His win-loss record is an underwhelming 210-147, and he has surpassed 15 wins only twice.

He’s the only member of the Braves’ dominant rotations of the early 1990s to spend his entire big league career with the team, but he has never been the main guy, always overshadowed by Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux.

But while Smoltz’s career doesn’t fall within the traditional pitching metrics of greatness, it’s also why he’s such a unique case. Even at the end of his career, he has offered to head back to the closer’s role if it keeps him going.

That competitiveness, the urge to be the one holding the outcome in his hands, is what may well bring Smoltz back for a 21st big league season.

It also will be what’s missed most about him if he doesn’t come back.

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