Smoltz overcame odds to get to 3,000 strikeouts

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

John Smoltz started the 2008 season with one of the best stretches of his career, striking out 41 batters in his first 23 innings.

And though a shoulder injury cost him most of the rest of the season, Smoltz’s final campaign with the Atlanta Braves will always be remembered for his 3,000th strikeout.

On April 22, 2008, Smoltz fanned Washington’s Felipe López in the top of the third inning at Turner Field to become just the 16th pitcher in history with 3,000 Ks. Smoltz got Lopez swinging at a darting split-fingered fastball, then soaked in the cheers from the 23,482 fans in attendance.

“This was a pretty incredible moment,” Smoltz told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There were so many people pulling for me to get this done. I wanted it to be at home. I think the fans deserved to see it here and be a part of something.”

Smoltz became the sixth-fastest pitcher to reach the mark, needing 3,385.2 innings to get there. Only Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens reached 3,000 faster.

Smoltz, however, was the only one of those pitchers who spent more than three full seasons in the bullpen. Smoltz served as the Braves’ closer from 2002-04 and for part of the 2001 season and endured four elbow surgeries along the way.

“Guys above me did it in a much grander fashion,” Smoltz said. “The top guy (Nolan Ryan) is ridiculous (with his total of 5,714 strikeouts). But I think the course of my career has made this really special for me because there could have been a lot of roadblocks.”

Just a little more than three weeks away from his 41st birthday, Smoltz appeared better than ever. He was tagged with the loss that day against the Nationals, but allowed only one run over seven innings, striking out 10 while walking none. The loss dropped his record to 3-1, but his ERA stood at a tidy 0.78.

“When Smoltzie made his first start in 1988, I was four years old and my mom was probably picking me up in preschool,” Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur told the AJC.

But unbeknownst to everyone, Smoltz would only make two more appearances with the Braves following that April 22 game. In his next start five days later, Smoltz allowed seven hits and four runs over four innings in a 6-3 loss to the Mets. His usual velocity was not present on his pitches, and Smoltz went on the disabled list with what was termed “shoulder inflammation.”

In May, Smoltz and the Braves said he would return to the bullpen to protect his shoulder. But after blowing a save against the Marlins on June 2, Smoltz went back on the DL due to pain that left him virtually unable to use his arm. He underwent surgery a week later to repair a torn labrum, ending his season.

“I’ve pulled off a lot of miracles,” Smoltz told the Associated Press, indicating that he was not ready to retire. “I probably shouldn’t have played this long. I look forward to seeing if I can extend it.”

Smoltz returned to action in 2009 – but not with the Braves.

His contract with Atlanta expired following the 2008 season, and Smoltz signed a free agent deal with the Red Sox. He went 2-5 with an 8.33 ERA with Boston in eight starts before being released on Aug. 17. He would catch on with the Cardinals two days later, going 1-3 with a 4.26 ERA in seven starts before making one relief appearance in the NLDS vs. the Dodgers.

It would be the final game of his career. Smoltz remains the only pitcher in history with at least 200 wins (213) and 150 saves (154). He finished with 3,084 strikeouts over 21 seasons.

“I gave it everything I had every single time I went out there,” Smoltz told the AP. “Whether I was 70 percent or 100 percent, I gave it everything I had.”

Smoltz was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series