07/14/2003 6:59 PM ET
Smoltz as 'automatic' as it gets
CHICAGO -- When a 22-year-old John Smoltz made his first All-Star Game appearance in 1989, he became the youngest pitcher in Braves franchise history to ever participate in the Midsummer Classic.
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
At the time, he was simply a young starting pitcher who was the lone representative from a struggling franchise that was laying the foundation for what would prove to be the most successful run in professional sports history.
Fourteen years later, the talented right-hander is now being considered one of the most dominant closers this game has seen and serving as the clubhouse leader for a Braves team that is seeking its 12th consecutive division title.
As Smoltz prepares to participate in his sixth All-Star Game on Tuesday night, the Braves right-hander can only sit back and smile about how much things have changed since he allowed Bo Jackson to drive in the go-ahead run in that 1989 Midsummer Classic.
"It's always an honor to go to an All-Star Game," Smoltz said. "My current role has obviously changed into one that is a product of how successful your team is. As a starting pitcher, I had more control over my success. Now, there are so many other variables."
If there has been one definite for the Braves since Smoltz became a full-time closer at the beginning of the 2002 season, it is that they will win almost every game that they possess a lead in the ninth. The record-setting closer, who notched a single-season, National League-record 55 saves last year, is on pace for 59 saves this year, which would better the all-time mark of 57 saves set by Bobby Thigpen in 1990.
Smoltz was forced to begin the evolution from starter to closer after he had Tommy John surgery in 2000. The successful transition has brought thoughts of possible future Hall of Fame consideration. He has 163 wins and with 11 more saves this year will become the first hurler to ever record 100 saves over two consecutive seasons.
"It certainly hasn't been as easy as it might appear," Smoltz said. "There are so many things in this role that I can't control. What's most important to me is helping the team win every game that I pitch."
The Braves, who currently own the best record in the Majors, have won 90 of the past 92 games Smoltz has pitched. He has a 0.95 ERA and has converted 94 percent (89 of 95) save opportunities over the past two years.
"He's about as automatic as automatic gets," Braves manager Bobby Cox said of Smoltz.
Smoltz looks forward to the opportunity to play in this year's All-Star Game that will award the winning league with home-field advantage in the World Series. But he also would like to see the opportunity in the future to sweeten the game's interest with a matchup of International All-Stars against United States All-Stars.
"Whatever the format is, you are going to go out there and give what you can while you're out there," Smoltz said. "Everybody is going out there to win."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.