John Smoltz is immersed in another tense game, as oblivious to the happenings around him as a man down a well. This state of concentration is how he has spent much of his time since last midseason, when the Atlanta Braves thanked him for 361 consecutive starts, 159 wins and the 1996 Cy Young Award by making him their closer. His eating and sleeping patterns haven't been the same since. But then, as hitters attest, neither has his paint-blistering fastball.
Smoltz knows that the difference between winning and losing depends on what he throws next. Such is the lot of the closer. It is a roll of the dice. "Oh, yeahhhh!" Smoltz suddenly erupts.
He even plays backgammon as if it's the ninth inning. Outfielder Darren Bragg, seated on the other side of the table in the lounge of the visitors' clubhouse at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix last week, hangs his head in defeat. "He's Mr. Energy," Braves lefty reliever Mike Remlinger says of Smoltz. "If he's awake, he's full tilt. He's like a 10-year-old."
His teammates have a nickname for Smoltz: the Big Toe. Remlinger, shaking a bare foot in front of his locker, explains: "You know, the one that stands out the most, the one that leads the way. Can't go anywhere without it."
Smoltz is a closer not by choice but out of loyalty to his team. He's still getting used to the job, as are the folks at Turner Field in Atlanta, who, lacking a typical power anthem for Smoltz, have sometimes played Dancing Queen over the P.A. when he enters a game. Otherwise, the education of a reluctant closer has been a record-busting success for Atlanta.
At week's end the Braves had followed the Big Toe to the best record in baseball (77-40) and, despite having played sub-.500 ball into mid-May, were on pace for a franchise-record 107 wins. Smoltz had pitched in 52 of the team's wins and amassed 41 saves, placing the 35-year-old righthander within striking distance of the major league mark (57) set by Bobby Thigpen in 1990. Last Thursday, when he retired the final three batters in Atlanta's 4-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, Smoltz reached 40 saves faster than any other pitcher, doing so in Atlanta's 114th game. "You have to put him with anybody for the National League MVP," pitching coach Leo Mazzone says.
The Braves hadn't lost a series on the road since mid-April. Overall, from May 15 through Sunday, Atlanta was 58-19. The Braves had turned the National League East into the 1973 Belmont Stakes, opening a Secretariat-like 19-game lead.
While lefthander Tom Glavine and righthander Greg Maddux (26-9 combined) have anchored the rotation for a 10th straight season, and Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield have been predictably the most productive outfield in baseball (62 homers, 214 RBIs combined), a heretofore undistinguished cast of relievers—save for the Big Toe—has made Atlanta dominant. Its bullpen (26-10, 2.36 ERA) was the best in baseball, even though three of its members (lefty Chris Hammond, 36, and righties Darren Holmes, 36, and Kevin Gryboski, 28) didn't pitch in the big leagues last year and a fourth (righthander Tim Spooneybarger, 22) sipped only a four-inning cup of coffee. The 36-year-old Remlinger, who went on the disabled list last week with a pulled groin, had his cover blown when Braves manager Bobby Cox named him to the National League Ail-Star team in July. Atlanta was 53-15 when it scored first, a tribute to a bullpen that had been used in every game but two this year.
"Having John at the back of the bullpen is one reason the other guys have done so well," general manager John Schuerholz says. "They figure, I'll get my three outs and then Smoltzie gets the ball."
"What I want," Smoltz says, "is to have that aura. It's the greatest asset you can have as a closer. You want that aura so that the other team thinks, Uh-oh, if they have the lead in the ninth inning, we're in trouble. You want them to think that when you walk in, that game's as good as over."