Hopes high for Smoltz's return to 'pen

Hopes high for Smoltz

CINCINNATI -- All expectations remain for John Smoltz to come off the disabled list on Monday. When he does, the Braves' overachieving bullpen will immediately gain a much-needed veteran presence.

More importantly, if Smoltz's right shoulder remains healthy, there's certainly a chance he could prove to be the dominant closer that he was earlier this decade.

"It's great just to know that he's going to be down there every day," Braves reliever Blaine Boyer said. "He's got the veteran presence, and he's got great experience. I'm looking forward to chatting with him a bunch down there."

While there's still reason to wonder whether Smoltz's shoulder will be able to withstand the rigors of a being a reliever for the remainder of this season, the Braves are certainly willing to take a chance with him.

Just as there are questions surrounding Smoltz's shoulder, there's also reason to wonder about the right elbow of Rafael Soriano, who was unsuccessful when given his first save opportunity in more than a month on Saturday. Soriano's elbow kept him on the disabled list for six full weeks, and since he was activated on Wednesday, he has not indicated that he'll be pain-free.

Even if Soriano was at full health, the Braves would have every reason to feel more comfortable with Smoltz in the closer's role. While handling that duty from 2001-04, he registered a franchise-record 154 saves and blew just 15 of his save opportunities.

"When he was out there, I thought he was the most dominant closer there ever was," Boyer said.

During the two Minor League rehab appearances Smoltz made for Class A Rome, he displayed a three-quarter-arm delivery that he believes will alleviate some strain from his shoulder.

After throwing a scoreless inning on Saturday night, he indicated his shoulder was better than it had been two days earlier, when he tossed two scoreless innings.

As he was driving back to his suburban Atlanta home on Saturday night, Smoltz called Braves manager Bobby Cox to tell him that his shoulder had reacted favorably to the 13-pitch appearance.

While Smoltz is expected to rejoin the Braves on Monday, Mike Gonzalez will likely spend at least 10 more days on his Minor League rehab assignment. During each of his first two appearances with Double-A Mississippi, he's thrown one scoreless inning.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.