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June 15, 2008

Every Given Sunday

One Last Comeback

by John Perrotto

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John Smoltz has long been fond of saying that he is only one shot away from the glue factory. Surgery to repair a torn throwing shoulder labrum--which Smoltz underwent this past Tuesday--has caused more than one pitcher to wind up getting sent to the knacker. However, the Braves right-hander isn't ready to let that operation end his career, even at age 41.

That determination is a reflection of the fact that Smoltz is already a survivor of four elbow surgeries, so it's no surprise that he vows to try one more comeback attempt. The odds would seem stacked against a pitcher with 21 years of major league experience and 3,395 innings pitched to recover from such a procedure. However, Smoltz wants to give it a try.

"If it's meant to be, then I'm going to do it," Smoltz told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "If it's not, then it's no big deal. But the ability to go out there and compete, and still do it at a high level, I would welcome that if it's still afforded me. There's nothing that I have to attain or nothing I have to prove. But much like those guys who want to retire and retire on their own accord, I admire that and for the guys who want to come back. I'm just looking forward to seeing what the next four to five months hold for me."

Smoltz certainly holds a unique place in history, as he has 210 career victories and 154 saves. No other major league pitcher has as many of each. In fact, the only other pitcher to reach 150 in both categories was Dennis Eckersley, who had 197 wins and 390 saves on his way to the Hall of Fame. Opinion is divided on whether Smoltz will follow Eckersley to Cooperstown; Smoltz's supporters point to the fact that he holds post-season records for wins and strikeouts. His skeptics say he falls just short of Hall-worthy numbers.

Asked earlier this season if he thought he would make the Hall of Fame, Smoltz said he couldn't give an answer. However, Smoltz made it clear that he thinks the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America probably don't look upon his career quite as favorably as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, the two pitchers he combined with to make the Braves a powerhouse throughout much of the 1990s and for the early part of this decade.

Maddux, now with the Padres, has 350 wins and Glavine, who went on the disabled list this past week because of an elbow injury, has 305. Neither Maddux nor Glavine had the same raw ability as Smoltz. Then again, neither spent nearly four seasons in the closer's role, as Smoltz did from 2001-04.

"I just fell in a category where it seemed like whatever I did people said it was what I was supposed to do," Smoltz said. "There wasn't a lot of credit at the time. There will be when the career comes to an end but I was always tagged as somebody with great stuff and it's never left me. I think people misunderstand how hard it is to pitch in this game and how wins don't come just because you have great stuff."

Smoltz also doesn't regret moving into the closer's role, even though he has always enjoyed starting more. Smoltz was just beginning to make that transition again this season. He began the year in the rotation, but went to the disabled list with shoulder soreness after five starts. In an effort to alleviate the stress on his shoulder, Smoltz made one relief appearance while employing a nearly sidearm motion. However, the pain was too great in the days following that outing, and he succumbed to surgery.

"It's always been about what's beneficial to the team," Smoltz said. "That always comes ahead of any personal situation and that's the way it should be."

Smoltz's legacy will always be tied to that of Glavine and Maddux, though he doesn't mind. "In the midst of us being together there was always a sense that we didn't win enough or we didn't win enough championships," Smoltz said, mindful that the Braves' only World Series victory came in 1995 towards the beginning of a run of 11 straight division titles. "We enjoyed the heck out of it, though. We've all defied what everyone else thought was an aging pitcher that was on the decline. Somehow, some way, each of us finds a way to disprove that."

Sadly, that may be coming to an end now that Smoltz and Glavine are on the DL. However, Smoltz says he can walk away from the game without regret if it should come to that.

"Certainly, I'm proud of what I've done," Smoltz said. "I mean, I literally gave everything I had every single time I went out there. I just relished it. I just could not wait for the big moment, the big game and I've had the time of my life doing it."

---

Brian Cashman and Hank Steinbrenner took a leisurely stroll outside the Yankees' offices in Tampa, Florida, in the hours leading up to the start of the first-year player draft 10 days ago. Steinbrenner, in his first season as the Yankees' co-chairman along with his brother Hal, wanted his general manager to know that he is still wanted in the Bronx. Steinbrenner broached the idea of extending Cashman's contract, which expires at the end of this season.

"I really appreciate him engaging me," Cashman told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I wasn't prepared for the conversation. I was focused on the draft. I told him I need to talk to my family. He expressed interest, which I really appreciate. I told him I wasn't looking to run from the Yankees whatsoever. I feel really good about the conversation that we had."

There has been plenty of speculation surrounding Cashman's job status this season. Some believe he will leave the Yankees to replace the retiring Pat Gillick as the Phillies' GM. Others have advanced the theory that Steinbrenner would replace Cashman with vice president of scouting Damon Oppenheimer if the Yankees miss the postseason for the first time since 1994. However, Steinbrenner has insisted all along that he is happy with Cashman, and the pre-draft chat seemingly confirms that.

"We have a good relationship," Cashman said. "Hal and Hank have emerged as the decision-makers in the organization. Everybody else has to find their way underneath them. That's going to take time. There's a normal process."

Cashman has worked in the Yankees' front office since 1986, and been the organization's GM since 1998. He considered leaving after his last contract expired following the 2005 season, but wound up signing a three-year, $5.5 million deal with a guarantee of complete control over baseball operations.

"Obviously, I want to do right by the family, which means the Yankees," Cashman said. "They're putting the money in the middle of the table. I feel really good about the conversation that we had. I told him I'm not looking to get out of Dodge."

---

Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez is positioning himself not only for a huge payday in free agency at the end of the year, but also to break the major league single-season record for saves. That record is 57, set by Bobby Thigpen for the 1990 White Sox. Rodriguez has 27 saves through the Angels' first 69 games, putting him on a pace to finish the season with 63. He has also converted a club-record 25 consecutive save opportunities since his only blown save of the season April 7 against the Indians. However, Rodriguez doesn't like his chances of becoming baseball's first 60-save man.

"No, it's too much," Rodriguez told the Orange County Register. "I don't think if I go play in Little League or even if we play 250 games, I don't think I could get 60."

Rodriguez is 26, the same age that Thigpen was when he set the record. However, Thigpen shouldered a heavy workload by closer's standards in 1990, as he pitched in 77 games and logged 88 2/3 innings. While Rodriguez did pitch 86 innings as a set-up man in 2003, his career high for games pitched is 65.

"Seventy-seven games is a lot for a closer," Rodriguez said. "You make 60, 70 appearances, that's a lot. Last year, I had 23 [saves] at the All-Star break, then went through that tough stretch and only got 40. So you never know. I would love to get 60, but what I really want is just to have better numbers than last year."

The better the numbers the more money Rodriguez stands to make on the open market. He insists, however, the best first half of his career is not related to his contract status. "People think that way but I don't even think about that," Rodriguez noted. "It's something personal you want to do for yourself. You want to get better numbers every year. You just want to get better and better every year you play this game."

---

Representatives from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will meet June 24 in New York to discuss the growing controversy over maple bats. Any changes involving the use of maple bats must be collectively bargained. It is estimated that roughly 60 percent of major league hitters use the bats.

The commissioner's office is expected to push for the elimination of the bats because they are prone to shatter. In April, Pirates hitting coach Don Long was struck in the face by a jagged edge of Nate McLouth's broken bat while standing in the visitors' dugout at Dodger Stadium and suffered nerve damage. The union, meanwhile, is expected to follow the wishes of its constituents--at least those who make a living as hitters--and remain adamant that the bats stay.

Sam Holman would love to be part of the meeting. He is the man who brought maple bats to the major leagues as founder of the Original Maple Bat Corporation, or Sam Bat, in Quebec. Joe Carter, then with the Blue Jays, became the first hitter to use Holman's bats in 1997. Holman told the New York Times this past week that the only reason so many maple bats are shattering is because some companies use inferior wood. "I think it's a standards issue," Holman said. "I wonder if the quality of the wood just isn't there."

Holman said when bats break into three or more pieces that it is likely a sign the maple was not dry enough when the bat was made. His company uses a vacuum kiln designed to thoroughly dry the maple and help the bats remain solid. "If you leave any moisture content in maple, you leave stress in the maple," Holman said. "If you have stress in the bat, it will break."

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees will be right at the front of the line if the Indians decide to trade left-hander C.C. Sabathia, though there are no indications yet that that is about to happen. The Yankees are willing to trade right-handed reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who is a candidate to be designated for assignment. Infielder Juan Uribe wants to stay with the White Sox even after losing his starting second baseman's job to Alexei Ramirez. The Royals, contrary to speculation, are not shopping right-hander Gil Meche.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon have left the decision to fire or retain manager Willie Randolph up to general manager Omar Minaya. Giants second baseman Ray Durham is considering retirement at the end of this season. The Rockies are willing to trade outfielders Scott Podsednik and Willy Tavares now that Ryan Spilborghs has emerged as their starting center fielder. Contrary to some reports, the Rockies have no plans to trade right-hander Aaron Cook. The Pirates are more likely to hold on to players like left fielder Jason Bay and right fielder Xavier Nady through the end of the season, then try to deal them in the winter when other teams might be more open to trading players on their major league rosters.

---

Some interesting facts as the 11th week of the regular season comes to a close:

  • The White Sox beat the Twins 10-6, 11-2, and 12-2 last Friday through Sunday, the first time they scored 10 or more runs in three straight games since beating the Cardinals 15-7 and the Brewers 11-5 and 11-2 from July 15-17, 2000. In the wins over the Twins, the White Sox became the 32nd team in American League history to have at least 10 runs and 15 hits in three straight games. No AL team has ever done that in four consecutive games.
  • The White Sox finished a 7-0 homestand against the Royals and Twins on Monday in which they had 61 runs, 91 hits, and 19 home runs. The only other major league teams to reach those figures in a seven-game span were the 2000 Athletics and 2006 Braves.
  • The Giants have won their last seven road games, three against the Diamondbacks and four against the Nationals. That is their longest road winning streak since taking their first eight games away from home in 2003, three against the Padres and Brewers and two against the Dodgers.
  • When Maddux and his 350 career victories faced the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw with zero lifetime wins, it marked the largest gap in wins between two starters since the Giants' Warren Spahn (361) faced the Mets' Darrell Sutherland (1) on August 27, 1965.
  • The Braves have lost 21 consecutive one-run decisions on the road, tying the major league record set by the Royals in 2000-01.
  • Dan Uggla's walk-off grand slam against the Phillies on Wednesday was the second in Marlins' history. The other was hit by Bobby Bonilla against the Rockies on September, 16, 1997.
  • Braves third baseman Chipper Jones is hitting .409. The last player to be hitting .400 this late in a season was Nomar Garciaparra, who had a .403 batting average for the Red Sox on July 20, 2000.
  • Royals outfielder Jose Guillen became the first opposing player ever to hit four home runs and drive in 10 runs in a series at Yankee Stadium when he did so in a four-game set that ended Monday.
  • Rangers shortstop Michael Young's 23-game hitting streak ended Wednesday against the Royals on a night in which Texas had 16 hits. The last time a player had a hitting streak of 20 or more games stopped in a game when his team had at least 15 hits was the Astros' Tony Eusebio, with a 24-gamer in 2000.
  • Mets shortstop Jose Reyes celebrated his 25th birthday Wednesday, and had 257 career stolen bases and 57 triples at the time. The only other player to have at least 250 steals and 50 triples on his 25th birthday was Ty Cobb, with 344 and 89 in 1911.
  • The Cubs are 28-8 at home, their best start after 36 games at Wrigley Field since their first season in the park, in 1916.
  • When the Giants and Rockies played to a scoreless tie through eight innings Wednesday, it marked the first time since Coors Field opened in 1995 that a game there was 0-0 going into the ninth.
  • When the Padres beat the Dodgers on Thursday, it marked San Diego's 1,000th win since general manager Kevin Towers took over prior to the 1996 season.

---

Three series to watch this week, with rankings courtesy of Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List:

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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