Operation turns Smoltz into surgeon

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - To see the difference in John Smoltz, you need to examine his X-rays.

The bone chips that long aggravated his right elbow have been removed, and Smoltz is the scourge of baseball. Cause and effect, he says. Claims he could see it coming in the spring. Simple as that. It was pain-free pitching that produced 24 victories, and not some sudden epiphany or revised release point.

This is his story, and he's sticking to it.

''This is not a big surprise to me,'' Smoltz said Tuesday. ''It seems to be more of a story to everyone else. 'Why the transformation? Why have you turned the corner?' I've had to answer a lot of questions that quite truthfully have hurt me because (people) didn't know the situation.''

Until he won 14 straight games this year, the rap on John Smoltz was that his stats were never quite worthy of his stuff. Among Atlanta's abundant pitchers, Smoltz consistently threw the hardest and had the least to show for it.

This year, his results finally caught up with his radar gun readouts. Smoltz opens the National League Championship Series as the acknowledged ace of the best staff in baseball. He led the majors with 24 victories and 276 strikeouts and - equally impressive - was selected to start tonight's playoff opener against St. Louis ahead of four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, the best left-hander in the business.

All this from an elbow operation?

''I've been able to get better,'' Smoltz said. ''Physically, I'm not limited in what I can do. In those three years (before the surgery) there was some frustration for me personally. I knew I couldn't get any better. All I was trying to do was throw the baseball pain-free, or try to get to that point.

''Say what you will about the year that I've had, but my biggest satisfaction is that between starts I've been able to improve. I can't tell you what that means to me. Before, (the approach) was to get into the training room and see what we can do to just be able to throw. That's pretty much the story line of those three tough years for me.''

Pitching at the edges

Smoltz' career record stood at 78-75 when he consented to surgery during the 1994 major-league strike. Since then, he is a glittering 36-15. He throws no harder now, but the ball is more obedient. He pitches to small portions of the plate instead of the general vicinity of the strike zone.

''I don't think John was ever one to worry so much about location on his fastball,'' Glavine said. ''It was kind of like, 'I'm going to throw it here and not be so precise with it.' This year, I see a guy who's throwing the ball on the outer half, the inner half, the outer corner, the inner corner. He is able to spot that pitch a lot more. When he can do that with his fastball, it makes some pretty darn good breaking stuff almost devastating.''

Smoltz's 276 strikeouts represented a career high, and his 55 walks suggested pinpoint precision. That's five strikeouts for each base on balls, an amazing ratio for a power pitcher, one that would have made Nolan Ryan illegal. Smoltz had always been capable of a dominating performance, but rarely several in succession.

''To me, John has basically been the same pitcher . . . since I've been here,'' said Braves manager Bobby Cox. ''We've gotten him a couple of more runs this year.''

Signs on support

Cox's simple view may have some merit. Smoltz himself points out that his earned-run average of 2.94 is identical to his 1989 ERA, when he finished 12-11.

''People all year have asked me what's the difference,'' he said. ''I've always tried to maintain that even when I wasn't healthy I was good enough to win 20 games, good enough to win certain awards, but it just didn't work out.''

Pending further developments, the elbow is as good an explanation as any.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 9, 1996.