CLEARWATER, Fla. -- John Smoltz has enjoyed the opportunity to make his early March preparations amid the relaxed setting of the back fields. But now the Braves hurler is looking forward to the chance to test himself against Major Leaguers in a true Spring Training game setting.
For the Braves, Saturday will be highlighted by the Grapefruit League season debuts of Smoltz and closer Rafael Soriano. They're both scheduled to pitch during Saturday's split-squad game against the Rays at Disney's Champion Stadium.
Smoltz's late debut is just a product of his wish to substitute his first three Grapefruit League starts with three simulated games. As for Soriano, he has been slowed by some right elbow discomfort that never seemingly bothered the Braves.
Soriano, who is entering a season for the first time as a closer, admitted earlier this week that he doesn't like to throw many innings during Spring Training. He made just nine appearances heading into last season.
If Soriano pitches every other day until the start of the regular season, he would have time to make at least seven appearances and possibly eight, if he chooses to test himself on back-to-back days once.
Smoltz, who is planning to throw five innings against the Rays, has time to make three starts before the start of the regular season.
"I never once during those three games felt like I was throwing batting practice or just exercising my arm," Smoltz said earlier this week.
Still, simply pitching in front of a crowd, with fielders behind him and against unfamiliar batters, will raise Smoltz's adrenaline level and give him a better sense of where he stands entering the upcoming season.
Smoltz's primary focus entering the exhibition season was to improve his offspeed pitches. During his string of simulated games, he was pleased with his changeup and was most encouraged by the progress he made with his curveball.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.