Smoltz pleased with progress as he eyes return to Braves' bullpen

John Smoltz is eyeing a return to the Atlanta Braves pitching staff within 10 days, as long as upcoming throwing sessions go as well as a flat-ground session went on Wednesday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Smoltz, who began the season as a starter but will return from the 15-day disabled list as a reliever, threw on flat ground on Wednesday. He said he felt "very good" after making about 40 throws from 90 feet, according to the report.

After starting the season 3-2 with a 2.00 ERA in five starts, Smoltz went on the disabled list with rotator cuff and biceps tendon inflammation in his right shoulder. He volunteered to return as a closer, a role in which he was dominant from 2002 through 2004, in order to lessen the stress on his arm.

"The future is brighter than it was two weeks ago for me," Smoltz said Wednesday, according to the newspaper.

Smoltz plans to throw from 120 feet on Thursday, then throw off a mound Saturday and Sunday at Turner Field. If all goes according to plan, he'll begin a minor-league rehab assignment next week, the newspaper reported.

While he doesn't know exactly when he'll come off the DL, "each day brings more optimism, and we get closer to getting in the games," Smoltz said, according to the report. "I feel better, but there's still a lot to be determined. The adrenaline of a big-league game is so much different than anything else.

"So I'll look at it very carefully, and when I make the decision I'll be ready for the long haul, hopefully, and not just for a few weeks."

Smoltz had an NL-record 55 saves in 2002 and is likely to at least share the closer's job with Rafael Soriano, who is on the disabled list with a sore elbow and could also return as early as next week.

Smoltz had 144 saves as the Braves closer from 2002-04, plus 10 more in 2001. An eight-time All-Star and the 1996 NL Cy Young Award winner, he's 210-147 lifetime with 154 saves.