Smoltz still feeling his way back after shoulder surgery

Updated: July 27, 2009

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

John Smoltz's return from major shoulder surgery has not gone all that well so far.

No matter what anybody says, getting old ain't fun. Sure, there's the wisdom that supposedly comes with age, but what about all the aches and pains?

And when you're a professional athlete, each passing year is just another step closer to retirement, when you simply can't hang with the young guns anymore.

Boston's John Smoltz is one such victim of this relentless reminder, as he struggles to recover from major shoulder surgery. With a 1-4 record and 7.04 ERA in six starts this season, many fans are worried the 42-year-old righty has reached that inevitable point in his career when hanging it up becomes the most prudent thing to do.

But Smoltz believes a full recovery is still right around the corner. Red Sox manager Terry Francona agrees. And so do I.

John Smoltz

Starting Pitcher
Boston Red Sox


2009 Season Stats
6 1 4 5 28 7.04

First of all, coming back from an injury at his age is going to be a slow process because your body doesn't recover as fast. What happens with most rehabbing pitchers is that the caliber of their bullets changes on a daily basis. One day, your arm feels really strong, your breaking ball has good snap and your differentials between off-speed pitches and fastballs are good. The next day, though, things can just seem really flat. When trying to come back from surgery, that flat feeling is one of the worst things a pitcher can endure.

Smoltz has been shaky in two-out situations, which tells me that he's struggling with mechanics and endurance. Two-out hits obviously come near the end of innings, by which time he's probably already thrown 15 to 20 pitches, so that might account for some of his problems.

He has registered enough strikeouts (28 in 30 2/3 innings) to prove that he still has swing-and-miss capabilities, but opponents are also hitting .321 off him. So clearly, this is a matter of inconsistent execution.

Smoltz still has his control, which is really at the core of who he is, but he's lost some of his command. He's throwing strikes, just not hitting his spots and keeping the ball down. Your fine-motor skills -- last to return after suffering an injury -- are necessary for finding that precise release point that results in quality pitch location.

Looking at him on film, I have a lot of confidence in saying that Smoltz will bounce back. His mechanics look the same. What he needs now -- the one thing that will bring the ball down in the strike zone and make hitters miss more -- is extension: the act of reaching down the mound and releasing the ball a little later as you throw. This hides the ball longer and brings you closer to the batter, so you seem more sneaky-fast.

And Smoltz knows that, too, which is why returning from an injury such as this is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. Prior to surgery, pitchers will compensate for pain by cutting their delivery off short. It's a tough habit to break, but a necessary one in order to get back to that level of extension where quality pitchers live.

It's frustrating, though, when you work so hard to get back on the hill and you just continue to struggle out there. But Smoltz can still hurl his fastballs in the 90s, and his slider remains sharp. If he can just make those minor adjustments to his location, Smoltz will return to form soon.

Even though many athletes at his age would love to slow down the calendar's persistent march, Smoltz should be confident quality playing days are still ahead of him.

It's only a matter of time.

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Home Run Tracker
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Yankees at Rays, 7 p.m. ET

The Rays keep hoping Scott Kazmir figures things out. He opened the season 3-1, but has gone 1-5 since April 29. That lone win came May 9. CC Sabathia hasn't had more than six strikeouts in any of his previous four starts. His longest such streak last year was three.

Astros at Cubs, 8:05 p.m. ET

As long as he can make it to the mound, Ryan Dempster is set to make his return from the disabled list. The Cubs right-hander has been out since July 8, when he broke a toe on his right foot after jumping over a railing and onto the field to celebrate a win. Roy Oswalt has dropped his ERA from 4.30 to 3.66 over his past five starts.

White Sox at Twins, 8:10 p.m. ET

Mark Buehrle returns to the mound for the first time since tossing baseball's 18th perfect game. When Buehrle threw a no-hitter in 2007, he pitched seven strong innings and got the win against the Royals his next time out. Twins starter Scott Baker is 6-1 since the beginning of June.

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PenaCarlos Pena remains lost at the plate. He struck out two more times in his 0-for-4 night in the Rays' 11-4 loss to the Yankees. He is 2-for-21 with 10 strikeouts over his past six games as his average has dropped to .217. For the month, Pena is batting .145.



Hanley RamirezAlbert Pujols Hanley Ramirez is standing in Albert Pujols' way of winning the Triple Crown. Ramirez had a .348 batting average entering play on Monday, better than Pujols' .325. Pujols, meanwhile, leads the NL in homers and RBIs.

Ramirez is also hitting each of the four basic pitch types well above the league average -- just like Pujols.

Ramirez is having a career year with his average by cutting his strikeout rate slightly (16.4 percent of PA from 2006 to '08, 14.5 percent in 2009). Some would also say luck has been a factor. Ramirez's batting average on balls in play has been .380 so far this season, well above his career average of .342 and the second-highest total in the National League this season.

Ramirez and the Marlins begin a three-game series with the Braves on Tuesday, and the Braves have been one of the few teams to actually have success against Ramirez this season. They've held him to a .261 batting average in five games this season, the second-lowest total against teams he's played more than three games against this year.

Hanley Ramirez and Albert Pujols
2009 BA vs. pitch type (entering Monday)
Ramirez Pujols NL avg.
Overall .348 .325 .258
Fastball .373 .339 .281
Changeup .382 .314 .246
Curveball .240 .227 .206
Slider .301 .333 .219

-- ESPN Stats & Information


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