John Smoltz is immersed in another tense game, as oblivious to the
happenings around him as a man down a well. This state of
concentration is how he has spent much of his time since last
midseason, when the Atlanta Braves thanked him for 361
consecutive starts, 159 wins and the 1996 Cy Young Award by
making him their closer. His eating and sleeping patterns haven't
been the same since. But then, as hitters attest, neither has his
Smoltz knows that the difference between winning and losing
depends on what he throws next. Such is the lot of the closer.
It is a roll of the dice. "Oh, yeahhhh!" Smoltz suddenly erupts.
He even plays backgammon as if it's the ninth inning. Outfielder
Darren Bragg, seated on the other side of the table in the
lounge of the visitors' clubhouse at Bank One Ballpark in
Phoenix last week, hangs his head in defeat. "He's Mr. Energy,"
Braves lefty reliever Mike Remlinger says of Smoltz. "If he's
awake, he's full tilt. He's like a 10-year-old."
His teammates have a nickname for Smoltz: the Big Toe. Remlinger,
shaking a bare foot in front of his locker, explains: "You know,
the one that stands out the most, the one that leads the way.
Can't go anywhere without it."
Smoltz is a closer not by choice but out of loyalty to his team.
He's still getting used to the job, as are the folks at Turner
Field in Atlanta, who, lacking a typical power anthem for Smoltz,
have sometimes played Dancing Queen over the P.A. when he enters
a game. Otherwise, the education of a reluctant closer has been a
record-busting success for Atlanta.
At week's end the Braves had followed the Big Toe to the best
record in baseball (77-40) and, despite having played sub-.500
ball into mid-May, were on pace for a franchise-record 107 wins.
Smoltz had pitched in 52 of the team's wins and amassed 41 saves,
placing the 35-year-old righthander within striking distance of
the major league mark (57) set by Bobby Thigpen in 1990. Last
Thursday, when he retired the final three batters in Atlanta's
4-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, Smoltz reached 40 saves
faster than any other pitcher, doing so in Atlanta's 114th game.
"You have to put him with anybody for the National League MVP,"
pitching coach Leo Mazzone says.
The Braves hadn't lost a series on the road since mid-April.
Overall, from May 15 through Sunday, Atlanta was 58-19. The
Braves had turned the National League East into the 1973 Belmont
Stakes, opening a Secretariat-like 19-game lead.
While lefthander Tom Glavine and righthander Greg Maddux (26-9
combined) have anchored the rotation for a 10th straight season,
and Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield have been
predictably the most productive outfield in baseball (62 homers,
214 RBIs combined), a heretofore undistinguished cast of
relievers--save for the Big Toe--has made Atlanta dominant. Its
bullpen (26-10, 2.36 ERA) was the best in baseball, even though
three of its members (lefty Chris Hammond, 36, and righties
Darren Holmes, 36, and Kevin Gryboski, 28) didn't pitch in the
big leagues last year and a fourth (righthander Tim
Spooneybarger, 22) sipped only a four-inning cup of coffee. The
36-year-old Remlinger, who went on the disabled list last week
with a pulled groin, had his cover blown when Braves manager
Bobby Cox named him to the National League All-Star team in July.
Atlanta was 53-15 when it scored first, a tribute to a bullpen
that had been used in every game but two this year.
"Having John at the back of the bullpen is one reason the other
guys have done so well," general manager John Schuerholz says.
"They figure, I'll get my three outs and then Smoltzie gets the
"What I want," Smoltz says, "is to have that aura. It's the
greatest asset you can have as a closer. You want that aura so
that the other team thinks, Uh-oh, if they have the lead in the
ninth inning, we're in trouble. You want them to think that when
you walk in, that game's as good as over."
Smoltz is the kind of type-A personality who is uncomfortable if
he's in a car and not driving, who zealously runs clubhouse
Rotisserie leagues and who takes his scratch golf game so
seriously he has designs on making the Senior tour. While the
frequent danger of closing would seem to fit him the way a
tightrope would a Wallenda, Smoltz isn't sold on the job. He
knows that Maddux and Glavine are free agents after the season
and that their decisions on whether to stay might leave a hole or
two in the rotation. Moreover, he's still chapped about pitching
only three meaningless innings when the Braves lost to the
Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series last
year. (In the five games, Smoltz was never called on in a save
"You can't convince me that a closer is more valuable in the
postseason than a starter," says Smoltz. "As a closer the game
has to come to you. When you're starting, you control the game. I
still think about matching up with Randy Johnson or Curt
Schilling and going toe-to-toe for eight, nine innings. I miss
that." Over the last decade, however, in which the Braves have
won 10 straight division titles but only one World Series
championship, playoff opponents have survived Atlanta's elite
starters and feasted on its unreliable bullpen. Smoltz, in fact,
is the first consistent closer Atlanta has had since the team
became a perennial contender.
Smoltz became a closer while recovering from reconstructive elbow
surgery that sidelined him for 2000 and much of 2001. The Braves
decided that pitching more often but for fewer innings would be
easier on his elbow. (He converted 10 of 11 save opportunities
last year.) They reiterated that point to Smoltz when he became a
free agent last fall, though the Diamondbacks and the New York
Yankees wanted to sign him as a starter.
In contract negotiations Smoltz made one demand of the Braves: If
he was going to be the closer, Atlanta would have to allow him to
play as much golf as he did when he was starting. (He teed up
nearly every day except those he was scheduled to pitch.)
Schuerholz, also an avid golfer, approved. Smoltz agreed to a
three-year, $30 million deal, with a bonus if he returns to the
rotation: The Braves must pay him $100,000 every time he starts.
"From spring training, everything was different," Smoltz says.
"As a closer you need everything ready when you leave spring
training, because you won't have time to work on pitches the rest
of the year." Smoltz never throws on the side anymore because he
pitches so frequently in games. As a starter he threw on the side
twice before every start.
He also had to change his eating habits. As a starter Smoltz ate
a meal three hours before his start so that "by the end of the
game my stomach was just about empty." Now, often entering games
almost three hours after the first pitch, Smoltz eats a light
meal, such as a sandwich, after batting practice. He even sleeps
differently. "As a starter the only time I needed a long sleep
was the night before I pitched," he says. Now, working
frequently, he needs more rest. "I've had to take naps at home,"
Smoltz says. "I've got four kids, so that's been hard."
The most difficult part, he says, was learning to stay mentally
sharp every day. "When you're a starter, you have four days to
relax and recharge your mind," Smoltz says. "As a closer you gear
up every day. Close games on the road are the worst. So many
times there have been situations in which, if we take the lead,
I'm in. If we don't, I'm not. It took me the first month of the
season to learn how to warm up. It was a nightmare."
In his second outing of the year Smoltz gave up eight runs to the
New York Mets, the most allowed in one inning by a Braves pitcher
in 23 years. On May 29 he gave up three runs to the Montreal
Expos, blowing a save and watching his ERA balloon to 5.93. "I
gave up a broken-bat hit, and the headline in The [Atlanta]
Journal-Constitution the next day was ANOTHER IMPLOSION FOR
SMOLTZ," he says. "I didn't want to talk to anybody after that.
You know what? I've carried that and the eight-run inning with me
every time I go out now. That helps me.
"People don't understand how hard this job is. You can give up
three shots, but if they're outs you're a hero. If one guy breaks
his bat and gets the hit to win the game, it's your fault. It's a
terrible feeling when you blow one. You come into the clubhouse,
and it's like you have a booger on your face--nobody wants to look
at you or talk to you."
Since that blown save against the Expos, Smoltz had a 1.95 ERA
and converted all but one of his 27 save chances through Sunday.
Cox, who had occasionally called on him in the eighth inning, has
used Smoltz more consistently, pitching him exactly one inning in
31 consecutive appearances. Given that assignment, Smoltz has
learned not only to pace his warmups but also to attack hitters
with an aggressiveness not suited for starting.
"When you pitch the ninth inning, one hit or one walk feels like
a rally," he says. "When you're starting, a guy getting on base
is no big deal. You work around it. You don't have that luxury
when you're closing. I might throw three or four splits in a row.
I'd never do that starting."
Smoltz admits that one by-product of getting regular work in
smaller doses is "my three pitches are better than they were in
1996." He's throwing his fastball, slider and splitter harder
than ever. His splitter, for instance, is a 91-mph, dive-bombing
rocket. "He's nastier than ever because he doesn't have to pace
himself," Arizona outfielder Luis Gonzalez says. "He struck me
out looking on a pitch at the knees because I was expecting it to
go down. But it wasn't his splitter. It was his fastball, and it
stayed at my knees."
Despite his adjustments Smoltz the closer looks much the same
statistically as Smoltz the starter. His pitches per inning (14.7
this year, 15.1 as a starter over his career), walks per nine
innings (2.6 and 2.9) and batting average against (.221 and .233)
have remained strikingly consistent. He has, however, improved
his rate of strikeouts per nine innings by more than 30% (10.2
"What's so refreshing," Mazzone says, "is that he doesn't show
people up or create an act like a lot of closers. He's
intimidating because of who he is and what he throws. That's it."
A guy called the Big Toe entering to the strains of Abba would
seem safe from accusations of bravado. Indeed, Smoltz maintains a
renter's mentality toward his home in the bullpen. Cox has said
Smoltz will make the call on how he's used next year, but
Schuerholz says that it will be an organizational decision. "If
he pitches like this for another four years or so, he'll be a
Hall of Famer," says Schuerholz. "If he goes back to starting,
the likelihood of that isn't good."
Calling his future role "a gray area," Smoltz hasn't decided what
he will do, though he says the Hall of Fame carrot "doesn't make
a difference to me." He's guaranteed $21 million over the next
two seasons, but (given the starter's premium in his contract) if
he doesn't return to the rotation, he forfeits the chance to earn
as much as another $7 million.
"I don't know what he's going to do," Remlinger says. "If you
take him from the bullpen, where would that leave us? He's aware
of that. His goal is to win as a team. I think he'd rather be a
starter, but he'd rather win a ring than 20 games."
Along with John Smoltz, these relievers have made Atlanta's
bullpen baseball's best (stats through Sunday).
1-0, 2.97 ERA
7-1, 1.48 ERA
2-1, 1.76 ERA
6-2, 1.19 ERA
2-1, 2.27 ERA
3-3, 2.45 ERA
game's over," says Smoltz.