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Braves' closer wants back in starting rotation

ATLANTA -- One day after the fourth surgery on his right
elbow, John Smoltz said he would retire before facing another such
procedure.

"This will be the final one for me, I can guarantee you that,"
the Atlanta Braves' right-hander said Wednesday after returning to
his home in Duluth. Smoltz spent Tuesday night in Birmingham, where
Dr. James Andrews performed the surgery.

"If I have to have another surgery, it's time to do something
else," Smoltz said.

Smoltz said he believes a return to a starting role would be
easier on his elbow and would boost the Braves' championship hopes.

Smoltz, 36, had surgery Tuesday to remove painful scar tissue in
the elbow. He missed almost one month late in the season due to the
pain, and he experienced more discomfort after his return.

Smoltz had already had three operations on his elbow, including
"Tommy John" reconstructive surgery in 2000.

"I'm glad I chose the surgery because it needed to be done,"
Smoltz said, adding he expects to be ready for spring training.

Andrews made an incision to scrape scar tissue from around the
nerves and the tendon in Smoltz's elbow. Andrews also performed a
less invasive arthroscopic procedure to confirm the structure of
the elbow was sound.

Smoltz won the Cy Young Award in 1996, when he was 24-8 as a
starter. After his reconstructive surgery in 2000, he moved to the
bullpen in 2001 and became a full-time closer in 2002, when he set
the National League record with 55 saves.

Smoltz, a mainstay in the starting rotation from 1989-99, said
he believes a return to a starting role would be best for the
Braves and his elbow.

"I just don't see us winning a championship with me in the
closing role, but other people do," said Smoltz, who has 100 saves
the last two years but has been frustrated by division series
losses to the San Francisco Giants in 2002 and the Chicago Cubs
this year.

"I feel my best asset is as a starter in the postseason,"
Smoltz said.

Smoltz has a 12-4 postseason record as a starter.

Smoltz appeared in 75 regular season games in 2002 and 62 games
this year. As a starter, Smoltz's high mark for appearances was 36
games in 1991.

Though a starter must pitch more innings, the work is more
structured and, according to Smoltz, less demanding on his elbow.

"No doubt it's tougher on my elbow to do what I was doing as a
closer, at the rate I was doing it," Smoltz said. "I think
starting is a lot easier on my elbow."

Added Smoltz: "Who knows? The door to starting might open."

The Braves may have to fill at least one spot in their rotation.
Greg Maddux, a leading member of the rotation since 1993, is a free
agent who is not expected to return in 2004.

Smoltz said it became obvious late in the season that surgery
would be necessary.

"My elbow didn't respond to various treatments and rest," he
said. "I was not pitching the way I'm capable of. Once I came off
the disabled list, it just got progressively worse. It's better now
to do (the surgery).

"I could have waited a week but what is it going to matter? I
decided I want to keep pitching and this is the best way to get
ready for spring training."

Despite missing time with the sore elbow, Smoltz finished second
in the majors with 45 saves in 49 opportunities. His 1.12 ERA was
the best of his career and the lowest mark of any reliever in the
majors.