Smoltz encouraged after shaky debut
Veteran allows five runs in five innings of Red Sox's loss
WASHINGTON -- Perhaps the combination of adrenaline, nerves and rust was too much for John Smoltz to overcome as he officially returned from right shoulder surgery and made his debut for the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night at Nationals Park.
In a performance that hardly typified the career of one of the best pitchers of the past two decades, Smoltz was hit hard early and the Red Sox never recovered in this 9-3 loss to the Washington Nationals.
Smoltz, making his first Major League appearance for anyone other than the Atlanta Braves, threw 35 pitches in the first inning, giving up four runs.
Instead of dwelling on the one shaky inning, Smoltz was enthused by the way he settled in. Overall, he gave up seven hits and five runs, walking one and striking out five. He threw 92 pitches, 62 for strikes.
"All in all, most times if the line score is the way it is tonight, I'm going to be very disappointed, but I really can't be at this point," said Smoltz. "A lot of hard work went into this. Although I'd like that mulligan in the first inning, that's just the way it happens. Now everything will be normal for me."
There was an enthusiasm in Smoltz that you won't see from him very often after a loss.
"I feel like I can accomplish whatever I want this year," said Smoltz. "That's why I came back and the rehab went the way it did. Now it's just a matter of going out there and doing it like I did before."
It was a different kind of day for Smoltz, in that he was not only starting over with a new team, but pitching in the Majors for the first time since June 2, 2008.
"It felt different because I had 71 texts today," Smoltz said. "It felt different because so many people were -- and have been -- rooting for me, and that's what frustrates you. That's what I struggled with most in the first start. I wanted to do well for those people who have been so supportive."
If the night had continued on such a rough path, it might have been a long wait for Smoltz (0-1) before he makes his second start for the Sox on Tuesday at Baltimore.
As it turns out, however, Smoltz retired the last eight batters he faced and struck out the side in the fifth.
"No matter how many times you've ridden the bike, you have to sometimes go through the same things to remind yourself that you're back engaged, and like I said, I'll look forward to my next start," said Smoltz.
The Red Sox (44-28) took a similarly glass half-full viewpoint of Smoltz's first start.
"Once he got going, he felt more comfortable and he threw the ball really well," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "As he gets more confident locating that fastball, I think he's going to have a lot of success."
The 42-year-old Smoltz will probably place this one right up there with April 6, 2002 (the day he began his first full season as a closer), and April 5, 2005 (the day he returned to the starting rotation), in the category of outings that fizzled following days of hype.
The right-hander had mentioned those two outings on Wednesday, hoping he could channel his adrenaline better in this one.
In his closing debut in 2002, Smoltz was rocked for six hits and eight runs over two-thirds of an inning against the Mets. And in that return to starting three years later, the Marlins belted him around for six hits and six earned runs over 1 2/3 innings. Smoltz also pointed out that '02 and '05 wound up being too highly successful seasons, demonstrating that an ominous opener hardly has to set a tone for a season.
"My buddy and I were joking because he flew up from Miami for the one [in '05] that lasted 1 2/3 [innings]," said Smoltz. "At least I got five innings today. I can just get déjà vu answering questions about, 'Can I really come back, can I really do this?' Three or four years ago, I heard he same doubt. It quickly changed, and that [first] game gets forgotten. The patience will be just from the nice little stretch here to get myself acclimated to this team, and you'll see what happens when I get in my groove."
Smoltz's first Major League inning in more than a year started to go dramatically bad as soon as he hit Nick Johnson on the left shin with one out. From there, Ryan Zimmerman cranked a double to left, Adam Dunn walked and Josh Willingham roped an RBI single to left. Josh Bard followed with an RBI single to right. Anderson Hernandez drilled a two-run single to left, and the Red Sox were in a 4-0 hole.
"When I hit Nick Johnson, I kind of sped things up a little bit," Smoltz said. "All in all, a lot of hits were a product of poor placement and good placement by them. Before you know it, it's 4-0 and I'm saying here we go again."
The right-hander settled down nicely in the second, throwing nine pitches in a 1-2-3 inning, but he struggled again in the third. The Nationals (21-49) extended the lead to 5-0 on Bard's RBI single to right.
"Regardless of him coming off rehab, he is John Smoltz," said Nationals center fielder Willie Harris. "He kept us off-balance, but we were able to get to him. We were able to hit some mistakes. He was throwing hard. His velocity was there."
After Smoltz's exit, relievers Daniel Bard and Takashi Saito were hit hard in a game the Red Sox were never really in.
More often than not, however, the Red Sox think that Smoltz will, at the very least, keep them in games.
"I'm sure there were some emotions and adrenaline that was certainly flowing and I think that had an impact on certain pitches that first inning," said pitching coach John Farrell. "He really gathered himself. I thought he was very good. The velocity was better than some games he has pitched in rehab. All in all, I thought it was a very encouraging outing. He certainly had enough to be successful at this level."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.