Mr. Versatile: John Smoltz thrived as starter and reliever

Published 11:58 am Tuesday, January 6, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) — John Smoltz could do it all on the mound.

Looking for a starting pitcher?

He was your man.

How about a closer?

Yep, he could handle that, too.

Smoltz’s amazing versatility could send him to baseball’s Hall of Fame on his first try when voting results are announced Tuesday, a year after former Braves manager Bobby Cox and longtime Atlanta teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were inducted into Cooperstown.

“I was not the strongest, and I was not the fastest,” Smoltz said in 2012, after the Braves announced they were retiring his number. “But I was the most determined and the most dedicated. I always thought of myself as the most competitive guy on the field.”

Smoltzie — as just about everyone called him during his 20-plus years with the Braves — is the only pitcher in major league history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves. Yet he was always proudest of the way he pitched in the biggest games, going 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA in the postseason to rank only behind Andy Pettitte for most playoff and World Series wins.

And Smoltz will long be remembered for one he didn’t win, the classic duel with Minnesota’s Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

“I always wanted to be clutch,” Smoltz said.

He began his career as a starter, posting double-digit wins in 10 of 11 seasons, highlighted by a 24-8 mark that earned him the 1996 NL Cy Young Award. After the most serious in a string of injuries kept him out for the entire 2000 season, the right-hander shifted to the bullpen in hopes of lessening strain on his arm.

Smoltz thrived in that role, as well, posting a franchise-record 55 saves in his first full season as the Atlanta closer. He followed with two more seasons of 40-plus saves before making another jarring career change. Approaching his 38th birthday, Smoltz moved back to the starting rotation and won 44 games over the next three years, twice making the All-Star game, before one final injury essentially ended his career.

He split his final season between Boston and St. Louis before retiring at age 42. He was an eight-time All-Star with a career record of 213-155, 154 saves and a 3.33 ERA.

Smoltz was once described as “the biggest of the big-game pitchers” by Cox, who was Atlanta’s general manager when he pulled off a 1987 trade that sent veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander to the Detroit Tigers for the 20-year-old minor-leaguer.

A Michigan native, Smoltz was heartbroken about being dealt by his favorite team. That was long forgotten when he joined Maddux and Glavine to form one of the best rotations in baseball history.

“So many things happened for me that turned out for the best, but I didn’t know it at the time,” Smoltz said. “That trade was devastating in my life. At the time, there was nothing worse that could’ve happened to me. Obviously, it was just a blip in my life. But when you’re 20 and you’re getting traded for the first time, you can’t imagine what goes through your mind when you feel like you’re not wanted by someone.”

Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine were the driving force behind Atlanta’s record run of 14 straight division titles, which included a World Series title in 1995. The trio pitched together for a full decade and became so closely intertwined that it was hard to think of one without the other two.

“We had such an incredible run and relationship,” Smoltz said. “They knew how to win baseball games. I learned a whole heck of a lot from them and just had a great time playing with them. I can’t think of what life would’ve been like without those two.”

Now, they have a chance to be together again.

For all time.