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He's back: Smoltz returns as reliever
Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz works in the ninth inning against the Florida Marlins on Monday in Atlanta. Smoltz allowed two runs but the Braves defeated the Marlins 7-5 in 10 innings. - photo by The Associated Press

ATLANTA — John Smoltz returned to the Atlanta Braves as a closer, hoping the role he had from 2001-04 will help him cope with an aching right shoulder and extend his career.

His first appearance didn’t go like he wanted: Coming on in the ninth inning with a 4-3 lead against the Florida Marlins, he gave up a two-out, two-run single to Jeremy Hermida to blow the save Monday night.

Still, the Braves rallied for a 7-5 win. Jeff Francoeur scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, and Yunel Escobar ended it with a two-run homer in the 10th.

"I’m glad we’re talking about a win," Smoltz said, standing at his locker afterward. "All in all, it was an emotional, driven, charging feeling that I haven’t had in a while. It was good to get that out of the way and go on from here."

The 41-year-old Smoltz was activated Monday before the start of a four-game series against the Marlins. The Braves shipped right-hander Phil Stockman to Triple-A Richmond to make room on the roster.

"My preference is to start. I can’t start," Smoltz said shortly after arriving at Turner Field. "It’s the situation I’m dealt with. Other than pout about it, there’s nothing to do except make the best I can out of it."

Smoltz had 154 saves with the Braves during his previous stint as a closer. He’s been a starter through most of his career and is the only pitcher in baseball history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves.

During a rehab stint in the minors, Smoltz was forced to use a different arm angle to cope with the pain. He’ll throw with more of a three-quarters motion than straight over the top as he’s done most of his career, costing him one of his most effective pitches: the split-finger fastball.

"I’d be lot more excited if I had all my pitches," he said. "I’m just going to go out there and be nasty from three-quarters."

This isn’t the first time Smoltz had to altered his pitching style to deal with soreness. He even tried briefly to throw a knuckleball, which might be about the only thing he won’t be doing this time to get hitters out.

"I’m not afraid to experiment," he said. "I’m going to have all kinds of deliveries and motions. There’s going to be nothing consistent about what I’m trying to do."

Which might be the best way to sum up his career.

The 1996 NL Cy Young Award winner first switched to the bullpen during the 2001 season while struggling to come back from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery — one of four procedures he’s had on his elbow. He had 10 saves that year, then set a league record with 55 in 2002.

Even after two more dominating seasons as a closer — but another elbow procedure — Smoltz asked to be moved back to starter in 2005, believing that he would hold up better physically by pitching every fifth day.

He went 44-24 over the last three seasons, only to begin having shoulder problems a year ago.

"Having him anywhere on our staff is obviously going to make our club a lot better," starting pitcher Tim Hudson said.

"But I know it’s going to be a change for him, going down there. I’m sure everybody wishes they could get eight starter innings out of him, but he’s at the point now where the best thing for him and us is coming out of the pen."

That was evident when Smoltz’s painful shoulder persisted this spring.

He started the season on the disabled list, came back to make five starts, but went back on the DL again. Smoltz soon decided the only way to avoid potentially career-ending surgery was to go back to the bullpen.

Yep, he’s a closer once again.

"All the things that came with the role before were fun," Smoltz said.

"This time around, will it be fun? I think it will be exciting. I hope it turns into fun. I hope it doesn’t turn into incredible work. All that being said, I’m looking forward to just pitching again. I enjoy pitching. Whether it’s sidearm, over the top of between my legs, I enjoy pitching. This is my step to get back to enjoying pitching."

How long will it last? Nobody, not even Smoltz, knows if he’ll be able to make it to the end of the season. And he’s certainly come to the realization this might be the final year of a brilliant career.

"When you go through these things, everything crosses your mind," he said. "I am a realist. I know I’m not going to pitch until I’m 45. I don’t know if I’ll pitch beyond this year. But I’ve not known that the last three years."

The Braves are looking forward to having someone of Smoltz’s stature to finish games, especially with the team’s dismal 2-16 record in one-run contests.

"It can’t do anything but help us," Chipper Jones said. "It solidifies a spot down there in the bullpen. To know that if we get a lead late, him coming in, it’s a big comfort to us. I know how it was when he was closing before."

Rafael Soriano, who started out as the Atlanta closer, spent a month and a half on the disabled list with an ailing elbow. Peter Moylan was set to inherit the role until he went out with a season-ending elbow injury. Rookie Manny Acosta filled in while Soriano was out.

Manager Bobby Cox plans to go with a closer-by-committeem approach, at least until he determines how effective Smoltz can be. If he’s able to get hitters out, the job will certainly be his.

"If we have a closing opportunity," Cox said, "John Smoltz will be the guy."

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