John Smoltz, erstwhile Big Toe of the Braves' bullpen, never did tread softly. Smoltz--"We nicknamed him Big Toe because he anchored all us Little Toes," explains reliever Kevin Gryboski--would moan about his role as the closer several times a week, more if the former starter was missing a matchup against another team's ace. Now after 31/2 years of vintage whines and 154 saves, Smoltz, one of the great big-game pitchers of his era, is back atop the Atlanta rotation along with the latest gem to join the staff, fellow righthander Tim Hudson.
For the Braves, this isn't about winning the NL East anymore; after 13 consecutive titles, it has become less a streak than a birthright. This is about October. "The one thing that puts us over the top, that makes us better than our last couple of teams, are our Number 1 and Number 2 starters," third baseman Chipper Jones says. "That's something we've been sorely missing. We didn't have guys who could match up with [the Cubs'] Mark Prior and Kerry Wood or [the Astros'] Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt. We were one game away from moving on in the playoffs the past three years, and now we have Hudson and Smoltz in the rotation."
There are some who have doubts about Smoltz's effectiveness as a starter because no one, at least no one of his stature, has done something like this before: A former 24-game winner who turned into a lights-out closer, at least partially because of elbow problems, is retracing his steps at age 37. Pitching coach Leo Mazzone, however, calls the move "a no-brainer." As for Smoltz, he looks leaner, more muscular, after a winter of training that helped him drop 10 pounds. "I think I would've embraced being a closer if we'd won a [World Series] with me in that role," says Smoltz, who has had four elbow operations, including one Tommy John surgery, and has not started full time since 1999. "I went to the bullpen by mutual agreement, although it was almost a Heisman [Trophy] approach--you know, a bit of a stiff-arm. I know having me there for 162 games made us a better team, but I'd argue in a best-of-five [playoff series] it didn't."
If nothing else Smoltz's move was cost-effective. For G.M. John Schuerholz it was more economical to acquire a closer, Dan Kolb, than to pay eight figures for another high-end starter to join Hudson in a rotation the general manager calls his best. Hardly the prototypical ninth-inning strikeout pitcher, Kolb, a sinkerballer, had 39 saves with only 21 strikeouts in 571/3 innings for Milwaukee last season. Of course finishing for the grim Brewers and being entrusted with a lead in Atlanta are hardly the same. Says Mazzone, "It all depends on the mental toughness of the individual." Kolb will have 55 or so opportunities to prove his.
While the Braves return to their classic 1990s model built around dominant starters, a staple of that era--former owner Ted Turner's open wallet--went the way of shag carpeting. Working for Time Warner (also the parent company of SI) with an $80 million payroll, Schuerholz again has demonstrated estimable creativity, resuscitating the apparently flatlined career of Raul Mondesi, who at $1 million is an affordable replacement in rightfield for departed free agent J.D. Drew. After being released by two teams in 2004, Mondesi wasn't the subject of much Hot Stove chatter until the Braves summoned him from the Dominican Republic. The other corner outfielder is 38-year-old Brian Jordan, who had 51 RBIs in 436 at bats with the Dodgers and the Rangers over the past two years. But with Andruw Jones (32 home runs and 98 RBIs per season since 1998), Chipper Jones and a healthy Marcus Giles, Atlanta should cobble together enough runs to provide its pitchers with a typical Braves sense of entitlement.
"Last year a lot of people said we were done, but this organization took the field expecting to win, and [that attitude] got us through," Chipper Jones says. "I get the feeling from other teams that they're hoping to win this year, and that's the difference right there. Teams in our division think they can beat us, but can they beat us time after time? I don't think they can." -- Michael Farber
John Smoltz is one of three pitchers ever to log 100 wins and 100 saves for one team. The others are Elroy Face, for the Pirates, and Bob Stanley, for the Red Sox.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Braves