Smoltz struggles in Braves' loss

Smoltz struggles in Braves' loss

LOS ANGELES -- When John Smoltz declared that he would be taking a more patient approach this year, he had no idea just how much his patience would be tested as soon as the season began.

Pitching amid unenviable wet and rainy conditions at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night, Smoltz suffered through a second consecutive forgettable season debut, in which the Dodgers produced enough first-inning damage to secure a 5-4 win over the Braves.

"I struggled a lot the first couple of innings on gripping the ball, and threw some pitches that just didn't do what they were supposed to do," said Smoltz, who allowed five earned runs and nine hits in five innings.

Smoltz's season debut was significantly longer than last year's, when he lasted just 1 2/3 innings. But the four-run first inning that the Dodgers produced with the help of a J.D. Drew two-run homer certainly brought back memories of Opening Day last year, when the veteran right-hander allowed the Marlins to score five times in the opening frame.

"It's not the start I wanted," Smoltz said. "Last year wasn't the start I wanted. But we held it there and almost came back."

The Braves, who scored 11 runs in Monday's Opening Day victory, were held in check by Dodgers starter Brad Penny, who was charged with one earned run and five hits. While also struggling in the tough conditions, the strong right-hander needed 92 pitches to complete his five-inning effort. But along the way, he managed to record eight strikeouts and didn't issue a walk.

"It was just one of those nights," Smoltz said. "It was sloppy. They had to pitch too. But unfortunately, the first inning set the tone to allow Penny to throw that many pitches."

After Adam LaRoche's second homer of the season capped a three-run eighth inning and pulled the Braves within one run, Smoltz was forced to wonder how much different things would have been if he could have escaped the first inning a little sooner.

"I was totally in control," said Smoltz, who is 0-3 with a 14.89 ERA in his past three season debuts as a starting pitcher. "I just couldn't make that one pitch that I needed to make."

Smoltz's evening began auspiciously when he retired leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal. But each of the next six Dodgers reached safely. By the time he got Dioner Navarro to ground into an inning-ending double play, Smoltz had already surrendered three singles and seen Drew deposit a hanging slider deep into the right-center field seats.

"Grip is very important to me, and unfortunately, the first couple of innings I really didn't have a good feel on the baseball," Smoltz said. "Those are some of the worst sliders I've thrown all year. It wasn't like I was throwing a bunch. It was the first one I threw and he deposited it. A good hitter will do that."

After a 25-minute, second-inning rain delay, Smoltz saw the Dodgers produce another run in the third inning, courtesy of three singles. It proved to be the difference in the one-run loss. But there were a couple of other plays that could have also changed the game's outcome.

Smoltz's inability to execute a sacrifice bunt in front of a Marcus Giles second-inning double cost the Braves. But so too did the fact that first base umpire Ed Rapuano declared a ground ball did not hit James Loney as he was running to second base in the first inning. Had Loney been called out, the Dodgers may have scored just three first-inning runs.

The men who control the left side of the Braves infielde were very confident that the ball struck Loney's foot. Giles looked the rookie in the eye when he got to second base and simply got a turn of the head. As for LaRoche, who was closest to the play, he said, "I'd be willing to put a year's salary on it."

Based on recent history, there also seems to be good reason to put such a guarantee on Smoltz bouncing back from this inauspicious debut in fine fashion. In his next four starts after last year's Opening Day misfortunes, he posted a 1.93 ERA and began his march toward a 14-win season, in which he completed 229 2/3 innings.

"I know the numbers didn't look good, but I'm pleased that I was able to stay patient," Smoltz said.

Obviously, at least one thing went according to plan.

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