Smoltz to add another feather to cap
Right-hander enjoying climb to 3,000-strikeout milestone
ATLANTA -- Only 15 other pitchers own the distinction of having recorded at least 3,000 strikeouts in their Major League career. But none of them took a path quite as unique and sometimes trying as John Smoltz, who is about to become the 16th.
From the beginning of his career, he possessed the stuff that hinted he could achieve greatness. But during the journey to join this illustrious circle of pitchers, patience, determination and versatility proved to be every bit as important as his fastball and slider.
"There is a very small list of guys who have 3,000 strikeouts and it's a pretty elite group of guys," Smoltz's close friend and fellow Braves pitcher Tom Glavine said. "It's a very hard club to get into. It's obviously more than just having stuff. You also have to have longevity. In John's case, the longevity has been a long fight."
While recording a Braves-record 154 saves in 241 relief appearances from 2001-04, Smoltz became the only pitcher in Major League history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves. Now he has this latest mark to improve his Hall of Fame resume.
"It's a tremendous [feat]," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Getting 3,000 strikeouts is like getting 3,000 hits. It's another nice feather in his cap. It's another cool accomplishment on the way to Cooperstown."
While 3,000 strikeouts might not carry the same weight as 3,000 hits, the 3,000-strikeout club does have 11 fewer members. Thus, whatever happens to Smoltz throughout the final years of his career, he now owns a mark that certainly immortalizes the significance of a career that included four elbow surgeries and an injury-forced 3 1/2-year stint in the bullpen.
"I think it's a huge number," Braves manager Bobby Cox said of Smoltz's strikeout total. "How many years did he pitch in the bullpen? He would have a bunch more [strikeouts] right now."
From 1992-97, Randy Johnson, who ranks third on the all-time strikeouts list, was the only Major League pitcher with more strikeouts than Smoltz. With health and electric stuff on his side, the Braves right-hander notched the 1996 Cy Young Award and provided indication that he might be able to make a run toward the 4,000-strikeout club that consists of only four members.
But as it was ascending, Smoltz's career began to take a turn when he enjoyed one of the most remarkable years of his career. Although he was on the disabled list twice with a sore right elbow during the 1998 season, he still went 17-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 167 2/3 innings.
Smoltz gutted through 32 starts (including the postseason) during the 1999 season before finally having to undergo Tommy John elbow ligament transplant surgery.
"It was amazing going to the ballpark," former Braves pitcher Kevin Millwood said. "My locker was right next to him. It seemed like he was hurting every day. To go out and pitch like he did was pretty amazing."
After hitting 2,000 and struggling in the starter's role early in 2001, Smoltz found himself making the unusual transition into the closer's role.
While notching a National League-best 55 saves in 2002, Smoltz proved his dominance as a closer and continued to do so through the end of 2004. Even with all of this success, Smoltz never lost his desire to be a starter.
The Braves granted Smoltz's wish before the start of 2005 and in his second start back, during a matchup against Pedro Martinez and the Mets, he matched his career-high 15 strikeout total.
Suddenly, there was reason to wonder how many strikeouts had been lost while he was dealing with his elbow and spending the majority of four seasons as a one-inning reliever. But courtesy of stubborn determination, Smoltz now finds himself among the elite strikeout artists of all time.
"I don't need anything," Smoltz said. "I don't need another strikeout. I don't need another win. I don't need anything to justify what I've done personally. I don't care if people think I made it too hard or too easy or think I should have struck out more or should have struck out less.
"I'm not going to lie to you, it's pretty cool to have 3,000 strikeouts."
During his youthful days in Lansing, Mich., Smoltz showed signs of being a special pitcher. His best friend and catcher Chuck Cascarilla remembers Smoltz throwing a fastball in the neighborhood of 85 mph when they were just in the eighth grade.
At the same time, the game, appropriately termed "Strikeout" these two devised, taught Smoltz the importance of location at a young age. On the Cascarilla family's chimney, the boys used white tape to devise four quadrants, which had to be hit with the pitch to be termed a strike.
To avoid the wrath of coaches or parents, who didn't want him hurting his arm by throwing a Wiffle ball, Smoltz often threw left-handed and still victimized Cascarilla.
"You always knew he had a special gift and talent, and he worked very hard to get what he's got," Cascarilla said.
Drafted by his beloved Tigers in 1985, Smoltz's life changed two years later, when the Braves acquired him in exchange for Doyle Alexander, who won nine of his 11 starts and helped the Tigers win the 1987 American League East title.
"Our scout loved him," said Cox, who was the Braves' general manager at the time of the trade. "He didn't understand why the Tigers were willing to move him, but they wanted [Alexander] to win a pennant and it worked."
While the Tigers got the pennant they were seeking, Cox got the prized right-hander he wanted in the construction of his pitching empire. Glavine arrived in Atlanta in 1987 and one year later, he'd was joined by Smoltz, who immediately showed he could thrive under pressure.
During his Major League debut at Shea Stadium on July 23, 1988, Smoltz allowed one earned run and four hits in eight innings. His only two strikeouts came when he began the bottom of the seventh with consecutive whiffs of Darryl Strawberry and Howard Johnson.
"I remember thinking, 'Wow, I just struck out Darryl Strawberry,'" said Smoltz, who watched Strawberry conclude a three-pitch at-bat by looking at strike three.
"I'll never forget the first strikeout. I'll never forget the first game. And everything since then, I don't know a whole lot about."
Truthfully, there has been plenty for Smoltz to savor forever. As a central figure during the Braves' unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles, he took advantage of the chance to record a Major League record 15 career postseason wins.
Further proving his ability to be at his best when the stakes are the highest, Smoltz posted a 1.52 ERA in the four postseason starts he made in 1991. His most memorable outing came in Game 7 of the World Series, when he opposed his childhood idol Jack Morris and provided 7 1/3 scoreless innings, only to see the Braves lose 1-0 to the Twins in 10 innings.
"Smoltzie could always turn it up a notch and he still can," Cox said.
It was during the 1991 season when Smoltz overcame some mental blocks and gained the confidence that allowed him to take his game to another level. With the benefit of David Cone being traded to the American League in late August, the Braves right-hander led the National League in strikeouts one year later. Smoltz claimed this honor again in 1996, when he notched 253 strikeouts and truly began mastering the art. Before 1995, his strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio never reached 8.00. That total rose to 9.79 in 1996 and was as high as 8.62 as recently as 2007.
Smoltz's strikeout totals increased as he further developed his slider and split-finger fastball. At the same time, he became smarter in certain counts and reduced the number of times he attempted to unwisely challenge hitters during a game.
"Early on, I got in trouble by trying to strike people out in situations that probably warranted something else," Smoltz said. "I always thought of myself as being a guy who could get strikeouts because I had the stuff that so-called warranted strikeouts. But I also learned that a pitch in a perfect location is better than a ton of strikeouts."
Twenty years after arriving in the Majors with a world of promise, Smoltz finds himself with a wealth of accomplishments and no plans to truly assess all that he has done until it's time to truly call his career complete.
"It's never been my motive to sit around and see what I've done compared to others," Smoltz said. "I enjoy the moment. I enjoy what I'm doing and I'll enjoy it as long as I'm still playing."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.