Sunday, August 23, 2009

Smoltz Adds Another Dimension

Cardinal Nation watched with particularly high interest and anticipation Sunday afternoon as the Redbirds wrapped up a four-game series with the Padres in the perpetually beautiful San Diego weather. Tony LaRussa used yet another pitcher in the useless five-hole in the rotation, inhabited this season by minor-league pitchers like Todd Wellemeyer and Mitchell Boggs. Today, however, the man on the mound was a pitcher who could take a weekend off to pose for his bust in Cooperstown—John Smoltz.

Released by the Boston Red Sox for eight inefficient starts, it was hard to know what to expect. Smoltz is certainly one of the smartest and most experienced pitchers. Heaven knows Cardinals fans remember what it was like to watch him dash our World Series hopes back in 1996. Former Cy Young winner, the only pitcher in major league history to record both 200 wins and 150 saves, Smoltz is a living legend. Now he joins fellow living legend-in-the-making Albert Pujols to see if the Cardinals can climb that mountain yet again.

What would the Cardinals get from Smoltz today? Average stuff? Blasted out by the third inning? Unexpected strength? Wit and resolve without much physical skill left in the tank? None of the above—five innings, three hits, no walks, nine strikeouts that included seven in a row. Smoltz didn't just exceed expectations; he hit them further out of the ballpark than El Hombre's opposite-field homer.

With afterthought pitcher Kyle Lohse-er on the DL again, Smoltz just advanced himself into the fourth spot in the rotation, as the Cards recalled Mitchell Boggs to once again pitch out of the five spot, a role that has become the equivalent of a Star Trek enlisted man wearing a red tunic on an away team.

Everyone knows that Smoltz brings a wealth of experience and leadership into both the clubhouse and the dugout, and no one in my generation has pitched better in the postseason with perhaps the exception of Curt Schilling. That was what we expected, and it is certain to make a difference in the stretch run.

But what Smoltz showed us today is that if he can duplicate today's masterful performance a few more times, the Cardinals have a legitimate chance to win four out of every five games the rest of the way. It allows Lohse to get fully healthy as well as taking some of the pressure off of Boggs or whoever else they throw to the Wolves on day five.

Smoltz really did show flashes of his old brilliance today. His arm simply isn't strong enough to throw a 90-plus mph fastball anymore, but at age 42, he was painting the corners and spinning his split-finger pitch off the edge of the table like his vintage days in Atlanta. Even after two errors put men on first and second with no one out in the first inning, he stayed cool and kept throwing ground ball outs. Even if his arm is 100 percent, his mind is still strong enough to get batters out.

For all the fan crap GM John Mozeliak has taken—and much of it was deserved last year—he has done more than any other GM in the major leagues to set his team up for a postseason run. In a seven game series, we would pitch two Cy Young candidates, Carp and Waino, ground ball wizard Joel PiƱero, and possibly future Hall of Famer John Smoltz. That sounds like a winning rotation to me.

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