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Smoltz: ‘It’s my first step to being a pitcher’

03.25.09 at 10:57 am ET
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It has been a challenging spring for John Smoltz. The future Hall of Famer has made himself follow the program outlined by the team’s medical staff, but for a famously and ferociously competitive individual, it has been difficult to spend the entire spring slowly building arm strength and resisting the instinct to push ahead that has been at the heart of his career-long dominance.

“As I’€™m taking these steps forward,” he said, “I have to tame the beast.”

Today was different. Roughly six weeks after the rest of the Red Sox starters had done so, Smoltz threw his first bullpen session of the spring. Smoltz threw 40 pitches — 41 if you count a ball that slipped out of his loose grip and dropped to the ground.

(“I’€™ll probably have that happen once a side session,” Smoltz explained. “Josh (Beckett) said I made a nice adjustment on the next pitch, probably the best adjustment he’€™s ever seen anyone make.”)

Smoltz only threw fastballs that he estimated he pumped towards the plate at roughly 70 percent intensity. The first 30 pitches were out of the windup before he switched to the stretch for the final 10. He was not trying to drive off the rubber, and there was no attempt to generate maximum arm speed. The goal was simply to get the ball to the catcher, and to re-acclimate with the experience of pitching down from the top of the mound to a catcher sitting behind the plate.

It was meaningful for Smoltz to resume life as a pitcher, and yet there was an unexpected foreignness as well. It was his first bullpen session since his tryout in front of the Sox in early December, and for the pitcher, it wasn’t quite as easy as jumping back on a bicycle.

“It’€™s my first step towards being a pitcher,” Smoltz said. “Everything else to this point had really nothing to do with pitching. It had to do with strengthening and time. It was all part of the process. Until you get on the mound, there was nothing like it.

“I can’€™t explain the awkwardness. I didn’€™t think it would be that awkward. I’€™ve been doing this for a long time, but it was awkward. I’€™d never really been that long without being on the mound. I look forward to the month worth of mounds and bullpens,” said Smoltz. “Even though I wanted to turn it up, I had set my brain in motion that I wasn’€™t going to get after it. That’€™s for a time to come.”

The session was monitored by Sox pitching coach John Farrell, but also featured what Smoltz portrayed as a larger-than-expected group of observers. TV cameras were there to record the session, reporters to document it. Red Sox front office members (Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer) also peered in, and starters Josh Beckett and Jon Lester both sat in as well.

“It’€™s not easy when everyone is watching you. I’€™ve never had anybody watch me when I’€™ve thrown a side session before,” said Smoltz. “You get a little anxious, a little nervous. That only happens to me when I do something for the first time in a while.”

Smoltz will have another bullpen session on Saturday. Then, he will begin using the full pitch arsenal that he has been able to throw off of flat ground — sliders, changeups, cutters — and will begin to feel like more of a pitcher.

“I’m looking forward to throwing all my pitches,” he said. “I hope to be sore.”

From there, he will continue to throw a side session every third day. He will continue to throw bullpen sessions for the next two weeks at which point, barring a setback, he will throw batting practice to hitters as the next step in a four-week phase.

As he moves closer to the point of a rehab assignment, he is unsure where he will be going while the team heads north for the season. He could be spending time in Boston, or he could remain back in extended spring training in Fort Myers to continue his throwing program in a warm climate. The idea of being away from a major-league club, should it happen, is something that Smoltz struggles with, but that he is forcing himself to understand.

There is, after all, the promise of the payoff. Today’s side sessions, Smoltz and the Sox hope, will yield to a return to a major-league mound by early June. The bullpen session today represented an important marker in that progress.

“Today signifies in his mind,” said Farrell, “that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.”

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