For short stints Smoltz's fastball still reaches 96 mph, his slider remains one of the best in the National League, and his splitter is above average. Last Thursday against the Astros, he threw his first in-game curveballs since 1999, to strike out Orlando Merced with two outs and none on in the seventh inning.
As good as this news is for the Braves, it creates a dilemma for them. Although Greg Maddux (15-7, 2.89 ERA) and Tom Glavine (11-5, 3.77) remain two of the game's best pitchers, and John Burkett (9-8, 2.57) is on track for the best ERA of his career, will Atlanta be content to use faltering Kevin Millwood and inexperienced Jason Marquis if it becomes locked in a stretch duel with the Phillies for the NL East title? Or will the Braves have to work Smoltz back into the rotation?
"If it comes down to it, I think John can start later in the year," says Mazzone. "It's an option." Smoltz disagrees. "Unless crazy things happen, it's not an option," he says. "My arm won't last seven or eight innings."
Although he would prefer to be a starter again, Smoltz says he's intrigued by the idea of becoming a closer. (In Game 2 of the Championship Series against the Mets two years ago, Smoltz earned his only save with a one-two-three ninth.) "I would definitely entertain it," he says. "It could be fun."
Heck, he's already got the facial hair.
A Striking Match
Aug. 20-23, Brewers at Cubs If the Bleacher Bums appear bleary-eyed during this series, it might be because they'll have stayed up all night making K signs to hang at Wrigley. Through Sunday, Chicago pitchers had struck out 993 batters, putting them on pace to surpass '.he major league mark of 1,245, set by the Braves in 1996, by more than 100 whiffs. The Cubs' record K rate isn't likely to slow against the Milwaukee hitters, who make all too many pitchers look like Randy Johnson. The Brewers had been rung up 993 times and are almost certain to surpass the strikeout standard of 1,268 set by the Tigers in '96.