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04/18/08 12:09 AM ET

Smoltz fans 10 to near elite milestone

Veteran just four strikeouts away from career No. 3,000

MIAMI -- John Smoltz has put himself in position to join an elite group of pitchers early next week. The Braves veteran needs just four more strikeouts to become the 16th pitcher in Major League history to register 3,000 career strikeouts.

With 10 strikeouts in a five-inning, scoreless performance at Dolphin Stadium on Thursday night, Smoltz enjoyed the 44th career double-digit strikeout game of his career and proved he can battle through the tightness that continues to exist between his neck and right shoulder.

"I won't get too consumed with [3,000 strikeouts] until I get three [more], and then hopefully the fourth one comes," Smoltz said. "This season, the strikeouts are coming because of the lineup, and because I feel like my slider is as good as it's ever been."

Smoltz's next scheduled start will come at Turner Field on Tuesday night, when the Braves host the Nationals. Before Thursday, the 40-year-old right-hander's previous double-digit strikeout game came on Sept. 7 against the Nationals.

Although he missed all of the 2000 season recovering from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery and then spent most of the next four seasons as a reliever, it appears Smoltz will need the sixth fewest innings to reach the 3,000-strikeout mark. Only Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens needed fewer innings.

Despite being noticeably bothered by the stiffness that has rested in his shoulder region over the past month, Smoltz began Thursday with a perfect first inning that included three strikeouts. When it took him just three pitches to retire Marlins leadoff hitter Hanley Ramirez, it was apparent that he had some of his best stuff.

Smoltz, who has allowed just one run in 16 innings this year, recorded two strikeouts of Marlins right fielder Luis Gonzalez. But his top victim of the night was Robert Andino, who struck out in each of his three plate appearances against the Braves veteran.

"Tonight, he just had good stuff," Gonzalez said. "His velocity was there, and he had a good slider. He got me the first time on a backup slider away, and then the second time up, he threw me a couple of sliders in, and he got me with a split-finger. "If you look at my track record, I'm pretty much a contact hitter. I don't strike out too many times in a game. You've got to just tip your cap. That's what I told the guys, they've got to keep going. The guy was on his game today."

Unfortunately, the shoulder stiffness prevented Smoltz from chasing what might have been a career-best performance. But while striking out half of the 20 batters that he faced, he certainly impressed Braves manager Bobby Cox.

"He can't throw any better than that," Cox said. "We just have to be careful [with his shoulder[."

Smoltz experienced similar stiffness during the second half of last season and says he has learned to make the necessary adjustments. Unfortunately, for the Braves, they may not currently be able to count on him for more than six innings on a regular basis.

But they still can obviously count on him to deliver big performances.

"I've been through this a lot," Smoltz said. "I've got four days to get ready for another game."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.