"I'm coming back as a reliever first and then we'll see what happens," Smoltz said during a late Wednesday afternoon telephone conversation. "I'm content with this."
While Braves manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Roger McDowell indicated they were going to wait at least a few days before seriously beginning to think about putting Smoltz back in the bullpen, the 40-year-old hurler doesn't believe there is any other option. He simply can't continue to pitch with the tightness that has existed between his shoulder and neck since midway through Spring Training.
"I hear people say that we can't win without me as a starter," said Smoltz, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday with biceps tendinitis. "But we're not going to win with me as a five-inning starter either."
During Smoltz's five starts this season, he exceeded five innings twice, including April 22, when he worked seven innings, registered his second consecutive double-digit strikeout total and became the 16th pitcher in Major League history to record 3,000 career strikeouts.
All of the celebratory feelings that were present that evening were erased on Sunday, when he allowed four earned runs in four innings against the Mets. Unlike his previous four starts of the season, he was unable to make the adjustments that would allow him to pitch through the discomfort and still be successful.
"I would have walked off the mound after the first inning if we hadn't been short on pitching," Smoltz said. "Even during those first four starts, I haven't been happy at all. I've been in a lot of pain. ... People say that I was lights out in those other starts. I was lights out for three innings and then gutted myself through the rest of those games."
After Sunday's game, Smoltz's body language indicated he was in greater pain than he'd been in during any of his previous starts. But he was truthfully just lamenting the fact that he'd reached the breaking point he'd been anticipating since he first started to feel some shoulder discomfort during Spring Training.
|"I hear people say that we can't win without me as a starter. But we're not going to win with me as a five-inning starter either."|
|-- John Smoltz|
Smoltz will rest his arm for a week and then begin throwing again. If all goes well, he'd like to make two or three Minor League rehab appearances and then join a Braves bullpen that undoubtedly would benefit from his presence. Top setup man Peter Moylan is likely destined for season-ending elbow surgery and closer Rafael Soriano is still on the disabled list with a sore elbow.
"It's hard to doubt him if he feels that's all he can do physically to help the team," Braves left-hander Tom Glavine said. "I don't think any of us are going to be complaining if he comes out of that bullpen with us having a one-run lead."
If Smoltz does return to the closer's role, he'll be returning to a role that he dominated from 2001-2004. During that span, he notched a franchise record 154 saves in 168 opportunities.
"He was probably the best closer that I faced [in 2003]," said Braves first baseman Mark Teixeira, who remembers the intimidating factor Smoltz could bring to the mound as a stopper.
Still, while serving as a dominant closer, Smoltz always longed for the opportunity to return to the starter's role. Before the start of 2005, the Braves gave him a chance, and since then he became the only pitcher in Major League history to have both 200 career wins and 150 career saves.
Making things different now is the fact that Smoltz will turn 41 on May 15. More important than age is his internal clock, which tells him his playing career could be nearing its end. Four years ago, he correctly predicted that he still had some profitable years remaining as a starter.
"I'm no longer at that point in my career," Smoltz said. "Things are different than they were before."
Even as he mentally prepares himself to move back into a relief role and likely become a closer again, Smoltz hasn't completely ruled out the possibility of being a starter again during the postseason. This is simply the mind-set one takes when they've notched a Major League record 15 career postseason victories.
"We'll see when that time comes," Smoltz said. "But I'd be blowing smoke at you if I told you I'd come [off the disabled list] and be a six- or seven-inning pitcher."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.