Washington Nationals Spoil John Smoltz's Return With the Red Sox

Boston Red Sox starter John Smoltz pitches during the second inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Thursday, June 25, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Boston Red Sox starter John Smoltz pitches during the second inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Thursday, June 25, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)
By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

John Smoltz joined the Boston Red Sox in the hope of a reinvention. He has been a starter, a closer and a starter again. He has learned to throw sidearm. And in this latest incarnation, he was looking for a fresh start with a new team.

"This is not the old or the new, or the done," Smoltz said on Wednesday. "This is just a new chapter."

But the honeymoon did not last long in his first start with Boston. The Washington Nationals blitzed Smoltz and won, 9-3, last night before 41,985, the third attendance record in as many nights at Nationals Park.

Washington (21-49) provided a harsh welcome, battering Smoltz with a four-run first inning. Smoltz settled down, but the Nationals found productivity that had gone missing at the plate and their starter, Jordan Zimmermann, pitched fearlessly against the imposing Red Sox (44-28).

"He's got good stuff," Dustin Pedroia, Boston's second baseman, said of Zimmermann. "He's got the stuff of a number one [starter]. He's going to be good for a long time. He's not afraid. He gets after it."

Zimmermann, who was 2 years old when Smoltz, 42, made his major league debut in 1988, did not succumb to the type of sluggish start that has given him trouble at times this year. And by the end of the night, Zimmermann (3-3) had deservingly captured attention. He relied on his fastball, allowing one run and five hits with six strikeouts and one walk over seven innings.

"He was tremendous," Manager Manny Acta said. "He was outstanding. He attacked those guys with his fastball, and he was able to get the best of them."

In the beginning, though, many eyes were trained on the opposing pitcher. Smoltz's 20-year tenure with the Atlanta Braves ended in ugly fashion. After Atlanta failed to sign him as a free agent, Smoltz voiced displeasure with the organization he helped to 14 consecutive division titles between 1991 and 2005. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote that Smoltz left a "hole in the heart of Braves Nation, as well as the team's starting rotation" when the Red Sox signed him in January.

General Manager Theo Epstein said he had visions of Smoltz, who has 210 victories and 154 saves, pitching the Red Sox into the playoffs in October. So Epstein took the low-risk gamble on an aging pitcher recovering from major shoulder surgery, signing Smoltz to a one-year deal for $5.5 million.

"Coming back from surgery, this is not a half-year job," Smoltz, who threw only 28 innings last year before his June operation, told reporters on Wednesday. "This is not something I wanted to do for a half-year. I wanted to pitch past this year."

In 92 pitches over five innings last night, Smoltz allowed five runs on seven hits with five strikeouts.

"He's coming off rehab or whatever but he's still John Smoltz," said Willie Harris, who went 3 for 4 with a two-run home run in the seventh inning. "He kept us off balanced today, but we were able to get to him early."

The Nationals wasted little time in the first inning, which was highlighted by Anderson Hernández's two-run single to left field. Also in the first, Nick Johnson was hit by a pitch and left the game after that inning with a left shin contusion. Washington scored off Smoltz in the third, and then added two runs apiece against relievers in the sixth and seventh innings.

Boston's lone run off Zimmermann came on David Ortiz's sacrifice fly in the sixth inning. Rocco Baldelli lifted a two-run home run off Tyler Clippard in the ninth.

Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, Smoltz seemed deep in his conviction about his return. "It will be a success," he said, adding: "It's about pitching and getting hitters out. The end result is going to be that. Three, four, five starts from now, I think you'll see why I feel the way I do."

But that was not the case last night. And it did not matter that Smoltz's 466 career starts dwarfed Zimmermann's 11 entering last night. Against one the game's great pitchers, Washington relied on its impressive rookie.

"It's huge for him," Harris said of Zimmermann's performance. "Who knows what type of confidence that just added to him?"

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