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In Return, Smoltz Left Battered

In First Start Since 2001, Right-Hander Lasts Only 12/3 Innings: Marlins 9, Braves 0

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page D11

MIAMI, April 5 -- Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz made one thing clear this afternoon: He doesn't pitch well with 1,395 days of rest between starts.

Smoltz's much anticipated return to the starting rotation after nearly four years as Atlanta's closer went downhill so quickly and so dramatically Smoltz didn't make it out of the second inning, pitching less in the Braves' 9-0 Opening Day loss to the Florida Marlins at Dolphins Stadium than in five appearances last year out of the bullpen.

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The Marlins didn't score off Smoltz in 29 relief appearances over several seasons, but they compensated by racking up seven runs -- six earned -- in 1 2/3 innings.

"I had this scoreless streak against them, yet they came out and destroyed it all in the first inning," Smoltz said. "I'm one that . . . doesn't allow this to be a devastating blow. It just really puts a damper on the start of the season."

Smoltz's struggles hinted that the Braves might have been too optimistic in expecting that he, at 37, could help the Braves' starting rotation return to its mid-1990s dominance. Smoltz, however, viewed the outing as a decent day marred only by a couple of poor pitches in two-out situations.

"I'm disappointed with the results," he said. "Not with the way I threw."

Marlins No. 7 hitter Juan Encarnacion turned a slow start by Smoltz into a full-fledged debacle when he smashed a 422-foot grand slam with two outs in the first to the delight of the crowd of 57,405. Smoltz said the high fastball he left over the plate for Encarnacion was the only bad pitch he threw that inning, despite giving up three singles.

First baseman Carlos Delgado, who went 4 for 5 in his Marlins debut, struck out swinging in the first inning but drove in two runs in the second with a line-drive single that ended Smoltz's day.

"I'm surprised whenever John gives up a run, to be honest with you," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said.

Smoltz faced 12 batters and threw 65 pitches. He had one strikeout and two walks. Last season, Smoltz collected 44 saves in 49 chances and posted a 2.76 ERA. He gave up his first walk in mid-June.

"As mad as I was walking off the mound, what can you do?" he said. "Obviously, I wouldn't have thought this was possible. . . . Clearly, my next start Sunday . . . should be a lot better."

On Wednesday, the Marlins will face the other anticipated jewel in the Braves' restructured starting rotation -- former Oakland Athletic Tim Hudson, acquired in an offseason trade.

Braves General Manager John Schuerholz, seeking a power-pitching starting five that offered potential for postseason dominance, chose not to re-sign stars Jaret Wright and Russ Ortiz in the offseason, turning to Smoltz, Hudson, John Thomson and lefties Mike Hampton and Horacio Ramirez.

While Smoltz stewed in the clubhouse about the outing, his counterpart, 2003 World Series most valuable player Josh Beckett, thrived. Beckett, who at 9-9 last season with a 3.79 ERA, believes he failed miserably to live up to expectations after he topped the New York Yankees in the World Series. If Tuesday was any indication, he is prepared to turn things around.

After giving up walks to the first two Braves, Beckett shut down Atlanta for six innings, allowing two hits and striking out six. The Marlins, meantime, scored their last two runs on singles by Delgado and Mike Lowell in the sixth off of Adam Bernero, one of four relievers Cox called upon.

"We did," Cox said, "get a look at our bullpen today."

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