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Smoltz pondering return to bullpen
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ATLANTA — Facing the prospect of trying to make it through the season with an aching shoulder, John Smoltz is pondering another dramatic career change.

The 40-year-old right-hander, who already went from starter to closer to starter again, is planning to go back to the bullpen once he comes off the 15-day disabled list.

Smoltz had shoulder problems last season and he’s already been on the DL twice this season, the second time after a pain-shortened start at New York last weekend.

An examination by prominent doctor James Andrews of Birmingham, Ala., found a severely inflamed biceps tendon and inflammation of the rotator cuff in the right shoulder. While surgery wasn’t prescribed, Smoltz seems resigned to pitching the rest of the year in some pain.

That apparently led him to conclude the bullpen was his best option.

“I am planning on coming back as a reliever first, and more than likely for the rest of this year,” Smoltz told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution late Wednesday.

The Braves certainly need help in the bullpen.

They had penciled in Rafael Soriano as the closer, but he’s on the disabled list with a sore elbow. His replacement, Peter Moylan, quickly followed him to the DL with an elbow injury that could require season-ending surgery. Rookie Manny Acosta assumed the role, but Atlanta’s bullpen woes are summed up by an 0-9 record in one-run games.

The team, which was off Thursday, is mired in its first four-game losing streak since last July.

Could Smoltz help turn things around as a reliever?

“We’ve all tossed that around,” manager Bobby Cox conceded.

But Smoltz also is an integral part of the rotation, which is rather thin beyond Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine and rookie Jair Jurrjens. The return of Mike Hampton might make it easier to move Smoltz to the bullpen, but no one knows when the injury plagued left-hander might be able to make his first appearance since 2005.

Hampton has undergone two major surgeries and keeps having one setback after another in his attempt to return to the majors. He left Wednesday’s rehab start at Triple-A Richmond when his latest ailment, an injured chest muscle, began bothering him again.

“In order to win big, John needs to be in the rotation,” Cox said.

Smoltz, the 1996 Cy Young Award winner, is the only pitcher in baseball history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves. This season, he became the 16th hurler to reach 3,000 strikeouts in his career.

The last three years as a starter, Smoltz was 44-24 with a 3.22 ERA. Despite the ailing shoulder, he went 3-1 with a 0.78 ERA in his first four starts this year.

Smoltz’s initial stint as a reliever began midway through the 2001 season as a way to help him better cope with his recovery from Tommy John surgery. He handled the role full time over the next three years, a highly successful stint that included an NL-record 55 saves in 2002 and a microscopic 1.12 ERA in 62 appearances the following season.

However, coming off the fourth elbow surgery of his career after the ‘04 season, Smoltz asked to be moved back to the rotation, feeling he was actually doing more damage to his elbow with all those appearances as a reliever, even though he was pitching far fewer innings.

Now, he’s apparently had a change of heart, though it’s probably still too early in the recovery process to make a final decision.

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