Ace ready to stare down Rocket

Smoltz set for epic matchup with Clemens

ATLANTA -- Six years of waiting and anticipating are about to end for John Smoltz.

One of the games most gritty, gutsy performers in baseball will return to the mound in a postseason game on Thursday. But this time, the 38-year-old isn't taking the ball out of the bullpen. The veteran right-hander is making his first playoff start since the Braves dropped Game 4 of the 1999 World Series to the Yankees.

As fate would have it, Smoltz's return to starting comes against the same buzzsaw he ran into six years ago, Roger Clemens.

This time the setting is different.

Smoltz squares off against Clemens in Game 2 of the National League Division Series at Turner Field.

"Believe me, the anticipation is what kills me," Smoltz said. "I have more fun in these ballgames than I have in any games I pitch. That's not going to be an issue. The issue is going to be, 'Will I be able to come out from the start and contain that adrenaline?' I've learned how to do that in my later years. With us being at home, and the idea of being with this club, you have to keep it close. With this baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, your chances of pulling out a win a great."

After 3 1/2 years of being an elite closer, Smoltz had a triumphant return to a starting role this season. As the ace of a suddenly youthful Atlanta club, which has eight rookies in the playoffs, Smoltz posted a 14-7 record with a 3.06 ERA. His tired right arm, and worn shoulder, logged 229 2/3 innings.

The reason manager Bobby Cox opted to use Smoltz in Game 2 and Tim Hudson in Wednesday's series opener was predicated on the fact Hudson is fresher. The Braves feel more comfortable using Hudson in a decisive fifth game.

But Cox pointed out on Wednesday that the club hasn't ruled out the option of using both on short rest. Should the situation dictate, Cox didn't rule out going with Hudson in Game 4 and Smoltz in Game 5.

Still, there is a bit of concern about how many innings are left in Smoltz's right shoulder.


All-time postseason wins leaders
Rank
Pitcher
Wins
1.
John Smoltz
14
Andy Pettitte
14
3.
Tom Glavine
12
4.
Greg Maddux
11
5.
Roger Clemens
10
Whitey Ford
10
Dave Stewart
10
David Wells
10
9.
Orlando Hernandez
9
Catfish Hunter
9

Asked if Smoltz could bounce back on short rest, Cox said frankly: "I can't answer that. John says he feels great right now to go in his first start. After that, quite honestly, we're not sure. We think he can. The one reason I'm pitching Huddie in Game 1 is so that he can pitch Game 5 -- not knowing if John could actually go."

With tunnel vision this time of year, Smoltz approaches any playoff start as if it is his last.

"Basically, I don't think about my next start, come tomorrow. I think tomorrow is my last start. That's the way I approach it," Smoltz said. "I never do that in the regular season."

Thursday will mark the 27th postseason start for Smoltz.

When he faced Clemens in the 1999 World Series, Smoltz gave up three runs in seven innings, suffering the loss. Clemens gave up one run in 7 2/3 innings that day, as the Yankees closed out the Series with a 4-1 victory.

In Smoltz's eyes, if you were to play mad scientist and build an ideal pitcher, Clemens would be the model.

"If you had to clone somebody on their mechanics and their power and their ability to throw the ball where they want to, he's the guy, as far as I'm concerned," Smoltz said of The Rocket. "Basically when you get into the playoffs, names are one thing and credentials are another. He has both. You know you're not going to get too much room to work with.

"My thoughts are, 'I better be on my game.' I think Game 4, the last time we hooked up in the World Series, he certainly was on his. ... Age is not a factor right now. I think we both pitch with our hearts and guts, and go after guys. Obviously, he has some hardware that proves it and speaks for itself."

Clemens returned the praise to Smoltz.

"He's special, also," Clemens said of his counterpart. "Coming from him, and how hard he's worked his way back, many times, tells me all I need to know about him and his tenacity and his pain tolerance."


All-time postseason strikeouts leaders
Rank
Pitcher
Innings
Strikeouts
1.
John Smoltz
200
189
2.
Roger Clemens
180 2/3
164
3.
Tom Glavine
201 1/3
137
4.
Mike Mussina
125 1/3
134
5.
Randy Johnson
108
124

Smoltz certainly is pushing his pain tolerance. Admittedly, he's not 100 percent, but he points out no one is this time of year.

Down the stretch, the Braves eased Smoltz's workload to get him ready for the postseason.

At what level health is his arm right now?

"That brings me back to my school days," Smoltz said. "I'd like to stay away from an A-minus, so somewhere between an A-minus and an A-plus. My control shouldn't be an issue. I've been down this road so many times before. The adrenaline is going to be incredible this time. You just can't duplicate it. You can't go through any regular-season game like this."

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