Smoltz adjusting to new surroundings

February, 15, 2009
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The last time John Smoltz wasn't in spring training with the Braves was 1987. So as he fiddled through the names and faces of his new teammates with the Boston Red Sox and adjusted to a day when he was told he was not permitted to throw a bullpen session because he was still recovering from shoulder surgery, he reflected on his biggest wont down here.

"My one regret," said Smoltz, "is that I don't have my golf partner. He's back in Orlando."

John Smoltz is a lock for the Hall of Fame. He has 210 wins, 154 saves, 3,011 strikeouts. He has won a Cy Young Award and compiled more wins in the postseason (15) than any man who ever lived.

But he can't get his golf partner to Lee County, Fla. Not when that partner is Tiger Woods.

Look, Smoltz wanted to finish his career a Brave, but that wasn't doable. He had "four or five" other options, but he was impressed when he talked to the Red Sox and they told him they didn't want to pressure him into rushing back and introduced him to the strength and conditioning program of Dr. Thomas Gill and trainer Mike Reinold. He realized, upon their first meeting, that Boston manager Terry Francona is like Bobby Cox -- who is the reason Smoltz never left Atlanta for more money -- and that Boston was where he wanted to be.

"Everyone knows I love the postseason, love crowds, I love the kind of intensity that exists in Red Sox Nation," said Smoltz. "This is a natural fit. I am overwhelmed by the way they have treated me. They just want me to get all my strength back and be there when they need me. I'll be there. Now, I think I could be ready in April, but they won't allow that. There are layers of an organization here I never imagined existed. This is really exciting."

Not to worry. David Firestone or someone will get Smoltz and Tiger onto The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

The Red Sox eschewed the big-money free-agent market this offseason, instead signing Smoltz, Brad Penny and Takashi Saito. Penny, who is younger than A.J. Burnett and in 2007 was third in the NL Cy Young Award balloting, is in the best shape of his career. He says his shoulder was so weak last year, "I never should have tried to pitch." But after a winter of dogged conditioning and buying into the Red Sox program, Penny says he is throwing "as well as I ever have" and pitching coach John Farrell now believes Penny will open the season in the rotation.

Add that on to Josh Beckett's improved conditioning and his recovery from a season in which he was bothered by injuries to both his back and left oblique, and pitched only 174 1/3 innings. Plus, the Red Sox have the depth of workhorse Michael Bowden, and young arms like Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz. This may be the deepest staff in the American League.

The health of Mike Lowell and David Ortiz will be determined in time. Shortstop Jed Lowrie did have 30 extra-base hits in 81 games and turned out to be a good defender. Then, in October, he found out that he'd played the season with a broken left wrist -- he hurt it in April with Pawtucket and didn't get it checked until after the season -- and realized the injury had probably limited his bat speed. After an operation, rehab and work at the Athletes' Performance Institute, Lowrie should be a different player in '09.

In this economy, the Red Sox will have time to figure out their offensive needs. And if two of the Smoltz-Penny-Saito group can come back, they are going to be really good.



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