Braves' closer still a starter in his mind

Updated: May 26, 2003, 1:53 PM ET
By Jim Baker
It was initially John Smoltz's idea that he pitch in relief. It is also his idea that he will someday return to the starting rotation. Buster Olney profiles the Braves pitcher in today's New York Times and finds him at an odd place in his career where he is thriving but still longing for something else.

Smoltz first headed to the bullpen upon his return from elbow surgery in 2001. It was a bold suggestion from a man who had never relieved once in his 12-year major league career. He became the team's full-time closer last year and, although he saved a staggering 55 games, his ERA was only seventh-best among his own team's relievers. So far this season it has been a different case entirely. His ERA is just 1.08 and he is striking out even more men per nine innings than last year (10.44 to 9.52). Add the fact that he has walked only four men in 25 innings and it all adds up to a heck of a start.

His transition from star starter to star closer is causing people to make comparisons to Dennis Eckersley who's success in both areas of achievement may yet land him in the Hall of Fame. Smoltz understands the tie-in but does not buy it completely. ''I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but from what everyone told me was that, basically, he was relegated to that role. He was struggling as a starter, and in that role, he flat-out flourished. I don't think I was forced into this role. I felt like I had a lot more to give as a starter, but it is what it is."
Jim Baker is an author at Baseball Prospectus and a frequent contributor to Page 2. You can e-mail Jim at bottlebat@gmail.com.

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