John Smoltz Invades St. Louis Tonight: Your Guide to the Start of the Century

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Well, okay, so maybe my title is overselling things a little bit. Maybe Smoltzy making his first start in the home white unis with the Birds on the Bat isn't the biggest story this team will produce this century. Still, it's a pretty momentous occasion, when a future Hall of Famer like John Smoltz puts on his uniform and takes the mound at home for his new team. He may not be the John Smoltz of old (then again, if his last start is any indication, he just may be), but that's still John F. Smoltz out there, man. Even I, in my impossibly cynical and sarcastic way, am plenty excited to see the game tonight. Oh, and thanks, Mark DeRosa

But aside from all that, the hype and story, there's also the matter of the performance itself. I was thrilled to death with what we saw from Smoltz last time out; here's what I'll be looking for this time around. 

Would it be overly trite of me to say I just expect more of the same we saw last time? Honestly, that's what I would like to see, but I'm not sure it's what we're going to get. 

When Smoltz made his last start, in San Diego, he was doing it on seventeen days' rest. More than anything, that fact is what worries me. The biggest factor for pitchers coming back from shoulder surgery is weakness and fatigue, as opposed to elbows, which tend to show up more as a lack of command. With over two weeks off from throwing in competitive game situations, Smoltz's surgically repaired right shoulder should have been plenty strong. We saw excellent velocity, decent stamina, and an ability to finish off his pitches that was sorely missing in his time with Boston. On a normal starter's schedule, I wonder if we'll see that fatigue start to creep in again. 
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It wouldn't surprise me if he came out throwing bullets again the first couple innings just like in San Diego. It also wouldn't surprise me if after a couple innings, the shoulder starts wearing out a bit. Watch for what his pitches start doing after he's thrown about 25-30; if there's a marked decline in velocity and the ball starts elevating, we'll know the shoulder is probably rearing its ugly head. 

I'm not going to bother talking about the whole pitch-tipping thing. We heard the same thing in the autumn of 2007 with Joel Pineiro, and he then went out and made us all cringe every fifth day in 2008. 

The quality of Smoltz's breaking pitches was the most remarkable thing for me in his first start. Both his slider and split-finger pitch had tremendous bite, and I think the extra time he had working on his delivery is probably the reason why. Smoltz himself talked about tweaking his mechanics, and when John Smoltz, veteran of 21 major league seasons and one of the most cerebral pitchers you're going to meet, tells you he found a mechanical thing, I would tend to believe him. Once again, though, I'm going to be watching to see if he can maintain those improvements. If he begins to tire (or, more accurately, if his shoulder begins to tire), we may see his arm slot begin to wander. Just as we saw with Mark Mulder's long and ultimately fruitless quest to come back from shoulder surgery, maintaining a consistent arm slot with a shoulder that lacks strength can be an exercise in frustration. If Smoltz can't throw his pitches from the same arm slot all game, his breaking stuff will likely show it. 

In the end, while it may be trite, what I'm hoping to see tonight really is just a whole lot more of what we got the last time out with Smoltz. What we actually see, though, may give us a pretty solid clue about just how good his chances are to remain a starter as the Cardinals head into the September home stretch. Regardless of how it goes tonight, I expect Smoltz will get at least one more start, largely due to necessity, but how his shoulder holds up to normal rest and a starter's workload tonight will tell us a lot about how strong we should expect him to be. 

We've already seen the man obviously still knows how to pitch, and there didn't appear to be anything wrong with his stuff in San Diego. On the contrary, his pure stuff was damned near lights out. Of course, he was facing a Padres lineup that ranks among the weakest in baseball; the Washington Nationals have a much better collection of hitters and should prove a stouter challenge. Still, the actual pitches Smoltz threw against the Padres would have made anyone look foolish, regardless of team or division. 

Now we just have to see if that stuff will hold up. If he looks like the John Smoltz we saw in San Diego for five innings or so, I say this is the Cardinals' fifth starter the rest of the way. (And fifth starter in name only, to be frank.) If he looks like that guy for about two innings then everything starts to slow down and hang up, we may be looking at the Cards' new setup man after all. 

No matter what happens tonight, though, it's hard not to be a little pumped to see one of my childhood heroes take the mound for my team. You'l forgive me, I hope, if I seem a little giddy. 

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