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Friday, August 2
Smoltz's repertoire makes him game's top closer

By Tony Gwynn
Special to

John Smoltz has gone from being a Cy Young Award-winning starter to being the game's best closer this season. Because he has more than one quality pitch, he has to be the toughest one-inning pitcher to hit.

John Smoltz
Atlanta Braves
53 57.2 1-2 39 67 3.90

Smoltz has four pitches -- fastball, slider, splitter and change-up. His slider is his best pitch, but he also still throws the fastball at 98 mph and the splitty at 90. Then he even has the ability to make pitches up when he's on the mound. It's almost unfair trying to hit against him.

When Smoltz was starting along with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, I loved facing the Braves' staff because they were the best. If we were lucky, we would only have to face two of them in a three-game series. All three bring something different to the table. Smoltz is overpowering, Maddux is crafty with movement, and Glavine is a finesse pitcher.

I had the most success against Smoltz, hitting .462 (30-for-65). When I hit against Smoltz, everything he threw was hard. He would mix in a straight change, but it wasn't like a Pedro Martinez changeup. I would always look for something hard and try to put the ball in play, and sometimes I hit him well.

I never faced Smoltz as a closer, but he has the right mentality for the job. He is competitive, he knows what he is doing, and he knows the hitters well as a longtime starter.

Doubling his pleasure
Two at-bats against Smoltz stick out to me. In 1996, he was pitching a no-hitter against us in San Diego. In the seventh inning, he threw me a fastball away, and I hit it to left field. Ryan Klesko went up against the wall to make the catch, but the ball went in and out of his glove.

Smoltz was waiting for an error call, but I could tell from the crowd response that the official scorer had given me a double. And Smoltz was ticked off. He just looked at me and rolled his eyes. There was nothing I could do about it. Once I hit it, I had no control over the call. But because I hit it, I think he felt I was given a hit.

Then a year or two later, he had a 1-1 count on me -- and threw me a knuckleball. I took the pitch, stepped out of the box and just started smiling because I had never seen him throw a knuckleball. I turned to the Padres' bench, and I said, "That was a knuckleball." The guys were all laughing. Then he came back with a backdoor slider, and I hit it off the left-field wall for a double.

After I was on second base and Smoltz got the ball back, he looked at me and said, "I just can't get you out. I'm just throwing it down the middle from here on out." The next two at-bats, he just threw me fastballs down the middle, and I grounded out both times.
-- Tony Gwynn

And as a closer, he can just rare back and come at the hitters. Here's the fastball, and then here's the splitter -- can you hit them? Then when a right-handed hitter steps to the plate, Smoltz drops the slider on him. Again, it may not be fair, but that's what makes him great.

I watched Smoltz pitch the other night, and the first pitch he threw was 99 mph. He has such an easy, effortless delivery; it just looks like he is playing catch with the catcher. For the Braves, it's a huge luxury to have a pitcher of Smoltz's ability coming out of the bullpen and closing the door.

With a major-league-best 39 saves, Smoltz has a chance to break Bobby Thigpen's single-season saves record of 57. Not only does Smoltz have great stuff, but he also plays on a winning team that will give him many save opportunities. The Braves have solid bullpen arms in Mike Remlinger, Chris Hammond, Kevin Gryboski, Darren Holmes and Kerry Ligtenberg who can preserve a lead until Smoltz enters the game in the ninth inning.

Smoltz had trouble early in the season, when he allowed eight runs in two-thirds of an inning on April 6 against the Mets, but since then he has been lights out. Since his last blown save on May 29, Smoltz has been perfect in his last 25 save opportunities.

Even though Smoltz has dominated as a closer this season, I think Braves manager Bobby Cox may eventually put Smoltz back in the starting rotation. Smoltz became a closer over questions about his arm's durability after he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2000. The Braves put Smoltz in the bullpen to get the most out of him. Now that he has gotten the job done as a closer, he could be shifted back into a starting role.

Smoltz knows himself better than anyone. His entire career, he has paced himself to pitch nine innings every outing. For him, pitching one inning nearly every night may not be as satisfying as pitching seven innings every fifth day.

After years as a starter, Dennis Eckersley initially hated the idea of being a closer. However, he realized that closing could prolong his career, and he ended up becoming one of baseball's best-ever closers. I think the Braves were hoping Smoltz would run with the closer role as well. But I don't think it's competitive enough for him.

Whether or not Smoltz becomes a starter again is a decision he and Cox will have to make. Last year the Braves used a number of closers, so they may be better off now with Smoltz closing games instead of starting them.

Tony Gwynn, who will take over as the head baseball coach at San Diego State next year, is working as an analyst for ESPN.

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