0

He's back: Smoltz returns to Braves as reliever

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

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

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.

But Smoltz said he's looking forward to the challenge, and this certainly won't be the first time he's altered his motion 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,' Smoltz 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.

The pain persisted this spring. After two stints on the DL this season, Smoltz decided his only chance to avoid potentially career-ending surgery was to go back to the bullpen.

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.'

Manager Bobby Cox said he looks forward to having someone of Smoltz's stature to finish games, especially with the team's dismal 2-16 record in one-run games.

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.

Cox plans to go with a closer-by-committee 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.'