WASHINGTON -- Time "absolutely stood still" for John Smoltz as game time approached.
He sped through his warmup faster than planned. His phone was overflowing with 71 text messages. Try as he might to downplay his Boston Red Sox debut -- a 9-3 loss to Washington on Thursday night -- there was no way he could avoid the magnitude of the moment.
"This was bigger than one start," he said.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, to see the 42-year-old right-hander have an anxious beginning and a solid finish in his first major league game in more than a year. Pitching in an American League jersey for the first time, Smoltz allowed four runs in the first inning and fanned the last three batters he faced in the fifth.
Despite the final score, the reviews were positive all around in the latest comeback for the pitcher with 210 wins and 154 saves.
"Most of the time when the linescore is the way it is, I'm going to be very disappointed, but I really can't at this point," Smoltz said. "I lost a little rhythm there in the first inning ... but very encouraged with how good I can be and the way I felt and the stamina and everything going forward."
Smoltz (0-1), who spent his previous 20 seasons with the Atlanta Braves, needed 34 pitches to get through the first inning, when the Nationals hit him hard by pulling pitches high in the strike zone. He settled down after that, giving up a run in the third but retiring the side in order in the second, fourth and fifth. His final line: five innings, seven hits, five runs, one walk, one hit batter and five strikeouts in 92 pitches.
"I was excited," manager Terry Francona said. "I know it was a tough game, but if he throws the ball like that, if he feels like that physically, he's going to be just fine."
Smoltz's two decades in Atlanta essentially came to an end last June, when he had surgery for a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. The Braves didn't re-sign him when he became a free agent at the end of the season, so he joined the Red Sox with a one-year deal and made the last of his six rehab starts last week before coming off the disabled list to start Thursday's game.
"There's been so much going on in the last eight days, I'm kind of glad it's over so I can resume the five-day rotation and do what every pitcher does," Smoltz said, "and that's make improvements from game to game."
Jordan Zimmermann (3-3), who took the mound with 208 fewer wins than his counterpart, had the best start of his young career to get his first victory since April 26. The rookie right-hander allowed one run and five hits with six strikeouts over seven innings as Washington snapped a three-game losing streak.
"Facing John Smoltz is huge for him," Washington outfielder Willie Harris said. "Who knows what type of confidence that just added to him? We jumped on Smoltzie pretty good and Jordan went out there and kept getting the first guy out."
The Red Sox were looking for a sweep in their first series in the nation's capital since 1971. Despite the loss, they'll no doubt want to beg Major League Baseball to book another trip soon: Each of the three games set a record for attendance at Nationals Park, with Thursday's crowd of 41,985 again flush with Boston jerseys, hats and chants for the visitors.
One thing seems certain: Smoltz won't be as jittery if there's a next time.
"Within a few starts," Smoltz said, "I'll be honed in to where I want to be."
Smoltz joins Phil Niekro and Warren Spahn as the only pitchers to spend at least 20 seasons with one franchise before playing a game for another. All three had their two decades of service with the Braves. ... By making his debut, Smoltz began earning incentives on top of his $5.5 million contract: $125,000 for his first day on the active roster and $35,000 for each day he stays on the active roster until Oct. 3. He'll get $500,000 more if he's on the active roster on the last day of the season. ... Nationals 1B Nick Johnson was hit by a pitch in the first inning. He ran the bases, then left with a bruised left shin.