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Smoltz to debut for Sox next Thursday

Smoltz to debut next Thursday

BOSTON -- John Smoltz finally has a date to circle on his calendar. He has an opponent to focus on.

The year-long battle back from right shoulder surgery will officially end for the veteran right-hander a week from Thursday, when the potential Hall of Famer is slotted in to make his debut for the Red Sox on the road against the Washington Nationals.

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Before that, Smoltz will go to Triple-A Pawtucket on Wednesday and make one last rehab start.

Who will Smoltz replace in the Boston rotation? At least in the short term, the answer might be nobody.

Boston has five established starters in Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny and Daisuke Matsuzaka. From June 23 until the July 13 All-Star break, the Red Sox have just one off-day, and manager Terry Francona did not rule out going with a six-man rotation during that time period.

"It might be [six starters], for a time or two through [the rotation]," Francona said. "It certainly could happen. I don't know that we need to make our rotation out two or three weeks ahead of time. You can't make a lineup or rotation out ahead of time. Something happens. That wouldn't be the worst thing for a short period of time.

"Again, not for the long [term], because guys don't pitch enough. With days off and the All-Star break, you have too many good pitchers that won't pitch enough. But for a short period of time, I think we could live with that -- yeah."

As for Smoltz, he's ecstatic to be on the verge of pitching in a Major League game for the first time since June 2, 2008. Smoltz had his right labrum repaired eight days after that.

He signed with the Red Sox in January, ending an association with the Atlanta Braves that began in 1987, when, as a top prospect, he was traded from the Tigers for Doyle Alexander. Smoltz has a career record of 210-147 and 3,011 strikeouts.

Instead of resting on those accomplishments, he's ready to add more.

"I'm going to have an abbreviated game tomorrow and then next week; it looks like Thursday against the Nationals will be my first start," Smoltz said Tuesday. "That gives me plenty of time to figure everything out, get situated and anxiously await my first start."

Smoltz will narrowly miss pitching against the Braves, the team with he pitched his first 708 Major League games. A day after Smoltz pitches against the Nationals, the Red Sox open a three-game series in Atlanta. The Braves also come to Fenway this weekend.

"I don't know if it made a lot of sense for his first or second start to be against the Braves," said Francona. "I don't think he was dying to do that. If he was, we probably would have tried to make it work. I don't know that this was in his best interest. He'll have enough adrenaline going in his first start back. I don't think it has to be the Braves. That's asking a bit much."

Smoltz has been too focused on getting back to the active roster to worry about who he would pitch against.

"There's not disappointment," said Smoltz. "I couldn't be disappointed about anything at this point. I've worked really hard to get to this point of even anticipating another start, and regardless of who I pitch against or whatever the outcome is, it's all part of a process, and this baseball season is a long, long time."

Matsuzaka, who has struggled mightily, is the pitcher who would have been scheduled for that June 25 start against the Nats that Smoltz will now pitch. There's a possibility Matsuzaka will simply be pushed back one day and open the series at Atlanta. For now, Francona is keeping his options open.

"We're going to give everybody if not one [extra] day, then two, because of the day off and trying to work into the All-Star break," Francona said. "We actually don't even have [the rotation slotted] that far along."

In truth, Smoltz probably didn't need one more start in the Minors. But with the glut in the rotation and another off-day on Monday, the Red Sox and Smoltz agreed this was the best solution.

"He's spent a lot of time getting ready to come back and help us and he's been unbelievably cooperative," Francona said. "He's been tremendous. He wants to help us win and he hasn't gotten caught up in just coming back to make an appearance for the Red Sox. He understands the big picture, which we're appreciative of. I think as an organization we'll be rewarded for that, because I think he's going to pitch well."

Even at 42, Smoltz couldn't be any more enthusiastic about pitching.

"I think when I'm out there," said Smoltz, "my goal is, like I said before, to create that aura as long as possible and to make sure that people go, 'Oh, he hasn't missed a beat.'"

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

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