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After Surgery, Washington Nationals Pitching Prospect Josh Smoker Ready for a Fresh Start

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By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 14, 2008

From an operating table in Birmingham, Ala., one of the Washington Nationals' most prized pitching prospects began the process of expunging from the record his first full season as a pro.

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The 90-minute surgery that Josh Smoker underwent on Tuesday removed a bone spur in his left shoulder that wrecked his season, the first step in distancing himself from his awful 2008. As a result, he stands to regain the velocity on his fastball and the power on his breaking pitches that in 2007 made him Washington's supplemental-round draft pick.

Just as important, Smoker is looking forward to his fresh start.

"Hopefully, everything now can get back to how it used to be," said Smoker, who had a 5.48 ERA in 44 1/3 innings in 2008.

The bone spur limited the left-hander's range of motion and the effectiveness of his pitches, and deprived the Nationals of seeing the player whose potential was bright enough to fetch a $1 million signing bonus.

"We're very optimistic and excited about seizing the 'real' Josh Smoker this spring," Nationals assistant general manager Mike Rizzo said.

Smoker began feeling tightness behind his left shoulder during spring training, a sensation strong enough to notice but never too painful to cause alarm.

Arm fatigue kept Smoker in extended spring training into late May. When he finally made it to his minor league assignment at Class A Hagerstown, he took losses in his first three appearances.

"We did feel that there was something not right about him," Rizzo said. "The delivery was about the same. The arm speed and the stuff coming out wasn't what we're accustomed to seeing."

Exams showed no structural damage. Smoker said the initial diagnosis was nothing more serious then possible tendinitis. But after he was roughed up in late June -- absorbing a seven-hit, six-run drubbing that inflated his ERA to 11.50 -- the Nationals exercised even more caution.

"There was a point this summer where I was just mentally drained," Smoker said.

The pitcher was shut down for a month, a time for rest that the organization deemed just as important for his mind as it was for his body. Smoker came back to start six games for rookie league Gulf Coast, posting a 1.37 ERA in 26 1/3 innings, an improvement from his earlier efforts. Still, the tightness in his shoulder lingered into instructional league season, when the discomfort grew into pain.

Orthopedic surgeon James Andrews discovered the bone spur, an injury that develops over time. Smoker tried to rehab the injury. After seeing no results, he had surgery.

The Nationals expect Smoker to be ready for spring training. And two days after the procedure, Smoker already has begun rehab.

"Just to know what's going on, to have it fixed, it's awesome," Smoker said.

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