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04/23/08 1:04 AM ET

Smoltz enters exclusive 3,000 K-Zone

Veteran fans Lopez to become 16th pitcher to reach mark

ATLANTA -- As much as he wanted to downplay the significance, those who knew John Smoltz understood that this would be an evening and milestone he could cherish forever.

Once the crowd at Turner Field rose for Tuesday night's first two-strike count, Smoltz too came to understand the magnitude of what he was about to accomplish. No longer could he hide the excitement of joining an elite fraternity, whose members already included Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver.

Instead he simply had to complete the journey that had brought him to this point.

With a third-inning strikeout of Nationals second baseman Felipe Lopez, Smoltz became 16th pitcher in Major League history to record 3,000 career strikeouts. Fittingly, he reached this elite milestone with the splitter that had provided him so much success dating back to the start of his 1996 National League Cy Young Award season.

"I was pretty anxious, more anxious than I thought," Smoltz said. "I had downplayed this as much as I could in my mind, because short of not throwing another pitch, I really thought this was something that would come. I wanted to get it done as quick as possible, so that I could just continue pitching."

Unfortunately, like too many other great performances or memories from his career, this one was soured with the Braves' 6-0 loss to the Nationals.

"I'll remember this for a long time even though it was a loss," Smoltz said.

Entering this season just 25 strikeouts shy of this milestone, it was easy for Smoltz to simply assume this accomplishment would come. But never did he foresee the type of excitement it would create for a group of fans and an organization who understand the dominance, perseverance and loyalty that he displayed on the journey to this point.

Granted the best seat in the house for this event was Braves catcher Brian McCann, who grew up in suburban Atlanta as a fan of Smoltz. Upon catching this milestone strikeout, the 24-year-old McCann jumped toward the mound and shared a brief embrace with the 20-year veteran hurler, who moments later was also swarmed by Chipper Jones and the rest of the Braves infielders.

"Smoltz has taught me so much about the game of baseball. I can never repay him," McCann said. "He's taught me how to call games and a bunch of things. To be able to catch his 3,000th strikeout, it was awesome."

When Smoltz victimized Mets outfielder Darryl Strawberry for his first career strikeout on July 23, 1988, McCann and Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur were just 4 years old.

Over the course of the 20 years that have followed, they've matured into superstar-caliber players, and Smoltz has remained a dominant Braves pitcher, who simply has a little less hair than he did when he first introduced his live arm to the Majors.

After returning to the clubhouse on Tuesday night, Smoltz found a number of text messages, including one from Greg Maddux, a fellow 3,000-strikeout club member who played with the Braves from 1993-2003.

According to Smoltz, the text read: "You've lost one hair for every strikeout that you've had."

The only other member of the 3,000-strikeout club to reach this mark at an older age is former Brave Phil Niekro. But Smoltz's path was very unique with the fact that he underwent four separate elbow surgeries and spent 3 1/2 years in the bullpen because the Braves thought that the relief role was better for his arm.

With a generous estimate that he missed at least five potential years in the starting rotation, it's easy to project Smoltz could have joined Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton as the only pitchers who have hit the 4,000-strikeout milestone.

"Guys that are in front of me did it in a much grander fashion," Smoltz said. "But I think the course of my career has made this really special for me."

Braves left-hander Tom Glavine, who was first introduced to Smoltz as a teammate in 1988, understands the amount of adjustments his friend made while either dealing with arm problems or serving as one of the game's top closers.

"I'm more impressed with his staying power than I am with the number itself," Glavine said.

Before Tuesday's game, Braves manager Bobby Cox tried to put this accomplishment in perspective by asking, "How many guys have ever pitched in the Major Leagues?"

Although it doesn't get the attention of some other milestones, the 3,000-strikeout club has fewer members than the 3,000-hit club, 300-win club and 500-homer club.

Francoeur simplified all of this by saying, "Being one of 16 people to do something like this is just incredible."

Smoltz's strikeout milestones
Player, Team
17/23/88Darryl Strawberry, Mets
5009/14/91Kal Daniels, Dodgers
1,0005/30/94John Burkett, Giants
1,5009/17/96Andy Tomberlin, Mets
2,0006/7/99John Flaherty, Rays
2,5007/15/05Jose Reyes, Mets
3,0004/22/08Felipe Lopez, Nationals

When Smoltz threw his first two pitches of the evening for strikes, the crowd roared with the anticipation of seeing the four strikeouts he'd need to reach this milestone. His first two strikeouts came in the second inning, and then after opening the third by striking out Nationals pitcher John Lannan, the scene was set.

Over the course of the day, Smoltz had visualized what pitch he'd like to throw to reach this mark. Once he got two strikes on Lopez, he had to deal with the buzz the crowd was creating. Fortunately, he had matured a little since that late September day in 1991, when this kind of excitement actually caused him to walk two straight Dodgers in a span of eight pitches.

"The fans were great," Smoltz said. "They caused me to do something I'm not used to doing, which is really rev up the engines with two strikes."

After the game, Lopez, who didn't come close to Smoltz's milestone-setting, 2-2 splitter, described the Braves hurler by saying, "He's just nasty."

Less than a month shy of his 41st birthday, Smoltz has proven his remaining durability by recording 10 strikeouts in each of his past two starts. The last time he registered consecutive multi-strikeout performances was in August 1997.

"Today, it was certainly an incredible feeling to get strikeouts and draw that kind of attention," Smoltz said.

When the top of the third inning concluded, Smoltz stood in front of the dugout, took off his hat and waved his appreciation to the fans, who were given a chance to roar yet again when he led off the bottom half of the inning.

Last year, Smoltz had the opportunity to outduel Maddux and capture his 200th career win. While that event seemed special, he says this accomplishment proved to be even more meaningful.

Usually able to hide some of his personal emotions, Smoltz was certainly overcome with the appreciation he received from the fans and teammates. But at the same time, it was evident one of the highlights came when he looked up in the middle of the third to see two of his daughters standing behind the dugout and smiling with pride.

"For those who have followed my career, know that I've been blessed with a lot of things," Smoltz said. "The Good Lord has taken me through a lot. This is an incredible moment."

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