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Smoltz, Red Sox focus on positive after anxious season debut

While waiting to pitch for the first time this season, and the first time in his storied career for anyone other than the Atlanta Braves, time stood still for John Smoltz. He was done with his pregame warmup session early and all he could do now was wait. For the man who had already waited through more than a year of surgery, rehab and minor league tuneups to get back to this moment, the delay felt interminable. "Each minute seemed like 10 minutes," he would say later.

His anxiousness was understandable. He is 42, and he has more yesterdays than tomorrows in his career. He was in a new uniform for the first time, and despite his stellar resume that stretches from here to Cooperstown and nearly a season's worth of postseason starts, he could still feel the butterflies as he waited to take the mound at Nationals Park. Even he was not sure what type of stuff he would have as he resumed his career. "Can I really come back? Can I really do this?" he had wondered during his long rehab process, a thought he surely had again as Thursday night's moment of clarification drew nearer.

But the nerves were not just for him, and not just to satiate his own curiosity. They were for the Red Sox, who have been so anxious to see just which version of Smoltz they would be getting. Would it be the future Hall of Famer who has been frustrating and overpowering hitters since the Reagan administration? Or would it be the aging veteran with the chronically sore shoulder? They were for his passionate new fan base, which has been eagerly anticipating his debut.

But mostly, they were for the legion of friends and admirers he has gained through over two decades of pitching excellence. It was for those who sent him the 71 text messages he received before the game. For the friend who came to watch him pitch, just as he did in 2005 when Smoltz returned from the bullpen to the starting rotation only to get bounced in the second inning, and said afterward, "At least I got to see you pitch five innings this time."

"What I feared most was wanting to do so well," he said later. "It felt different because so many people were rooting for me."

All of those people have to be very happy with what they saw from him, certainly happier than anyone has ever been with a pitching line that on the surface reads as a disappointment: a loss after five innings, seven hits, five runs (all earned), one walk and five strikeouts. But beneath that were some very positive signs that caused Red Sox manager Terry Francona to say he was "excited": Smoltz got noticeably better as the evening wore on, finishing his night by striking out the side in the fifth. He finished with a good ball-strike ratio (62 strikes, only 30 balls) and he even managed to surprise himself. Of his slider he said, "I was very impressed and pleased with it," and of his fastball, which rarely topped 91 mph but which he insisted he can dial up a few more notches, he said "the life on it is better than I give it credit for."

"I can't be disappointed," said a relieved and contented Smoltz after his 92-pitch outing. "I'm very encouraged with how good I can be and the way I felt. In a few starts I'll be honed in where I want to be."

That's very good news for Smoltz, the Red Sox, and their famously rabid fans, thousands of whom flooded the Nationals ballpark to make it seem like Fenway Park South. It's also very bad news for the rest of the AL East. Smoltz's return had given the first-place Red Sox, already blessed with quality arms throughout the rotation, a surplus of quality starting pitching, which would make their ability to trade from that surplus to help themselves in other areas all the more likely. Now that he is proving that he can in fact be counted on, Boston is free to try and improve themselves elsewhere, perhaps by trading starter Brad Penny. Additionally, the Red Sox don't need Smoltz to be an ace, or even a No. 2. His presence in the rotation just makes their pitching staff that much deeper, that much better and that much more difficult to match up against.

"This was one start, but it was bigger than one start," Smoltz admitted. "Everyone was looking to see what I could bring to the game."

They were also curious to see what he could bring to the Red Sox, and though all parties were optimistic, they are not in the clear just yet. As Smoltz admitted, it will be a couple days before "I find out if a truck hit me." But if all goes as planned and his surgically repaired shoulder responds as well after this game as it has after his minor league starts, there is every reason to think that Smoltz will only get better with each successive start. "I feel like I can accomplish whatever I wanted to accomplish," he said of his goals for the rest of the season.

The Red Sox goals remain the same as always. Without Smoltz, they made it to this point in the season with a five-game lead in the AL East. With him, their chances of returning to the postseason are greatly increased, which is the goal Smoltz spoke openly about before his return.

As pleased as they are on a steamy June evening in the nation's capital, both the Red Sox and Smoltz -- who has pitched in playoffs in 13 of his 20 seasons and knows a playoff club when he sees one -- are veterans of enough postseasons to know that his return won't truly be deemed a success yet. That must wait until he's back where he and they expect to be: on the mound at Fenway Park, with a chill in the air, in the only month that really matters to both of them: October.

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