John Smoltz is whole again. There is a smile on his face, a bounce in his step, a killer snap to his slider and a glint in his eyes that could belong only to a pitcher who, Tom Sawyer-like, had witnessed the funeral for his own career. The Braves righthander always did bring hot-wired intensity to the mound, famously so in the postseason. Now, after three years of pitching with pain in his elbow and another year of not pitching at all because of reconstructive surgery, Smoltz is more dangerous than ever.
It is not just that Smoltz, only one year removed from surgery, has already regained the same wicked arsenal of pitches he had in 1996, when he won the NL Cy Young Award. It is also that, at age 33, he can deliver them with the wisdom that comes from having thrown almost 2,500 innings—even if he equates his most recent, pain-riddled time on the mound to "being miserable every five days."
Aside from some predictable postsurgical soreness, which caused him to back off his throwing program, Smoltz's recovery has been "amazingly uneventful," according to assistant G.M. Frank Wren. "I know people looked at me like I was on the way out," Smoltz says. "I'm convinced I have the capacity to be better than I ever was. Ever. Now I have the stuff, and I have the ability to make in-game changes. Before I had no chance to stay in a game by doing that."
Smoltz's return makes Atlanta whole again too. The Braves won 95 games in 2000 and a division title for the ninth straight season, but righthander Kevin Millwood fell to 10-13 after going 40-18 during three seasons learning at Smoltz's side. "He'll be better with Smoltzie back," pitching coach Leo Mazzone says. Without Smoltz, Atlanta also suffered its most embarrassing postseason defeat. It lost three straight games to the Cardinals in a Division Series in which Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Millwood were simonized for 16 earned runs in 11 innings.
Smoltz is one of the premier October pitchers of his generation. The Braves are 16-10 when he starts a postseason game and 36-36 behind anyone else, including 14-13 with Glavine and 11-11 with Maddux. Including five regular-season starts, Smoltz has pitched in 32 October games and lost just four of them—and then only by scores of 2-1, 1-0, 5-2 and 4-1. He has 14 wins and a 2.62 ERA in October.
This winter the Braves lost out on free agents Mike Hampton and Alex Rodriguez and succeeded only in getting first baseman Rico Brogna, an injury-plagued, .232 hitter for the Phillies and the Red Sox last year, and reserve outfielder Dave Martinez, a carrier of bad karma. (Not one of the eight teams for which he has played a combined 1,799 games has reached the postseason.) Yet for all that, Atlanta is one of the most-improved teams in baseball. That's not only because of Smoltz but also thanks to a return to health of three other key players: Odalis Perez, the 22-year-old lefty with a 95-mph fastball who missed last season because of elbow surgery; second baseman Quilvio Veras, who had 25 steals and a .413 on-base percentage before he tore up a knee in mid-July; and rightfielder Brian Jordan, who hit only .264 while suffering soreness in both shoulders that required off-season surgery.
Jordan dropped 15 pounds over the winter to become more flexible. Centerfielder Andruw Jones, on the other hand, added the same amount of upper-body muscle. He, too, figures to be a better Brave. After piling up 36 home runs and 104 RBIs while mostly batting second, Jones, 23, has graduated into a middle-of-the-order thumper whose physical and professional growth mirror that of Barry Bonds. Jones has 116 homers and 361 RBIs after five seasons. Bonds, who began his career as a leadoff hitter, had 117 home runs and 337 RBIs at the same checkpoint.
"Andruw had great numbers last year without having a great year," Braves hitting coach Merv Rettenmund says. "He's not close to what he can be yet."
Says G.M. John Schuerholz, "People got excited about the sizzle of some of the names on the free-agent market. We may not have gotten the sizzle, but we think we've got plenty of steak right here."
The analogy fits, especially with Smoltz back on the mound. The Braves have the familiar look of the team to beat in the National League. They are the meat and potatoes of baseball.