First things first: Here's your tentative John Smoltz schedule:
May 31: Single-A Greenville
June 5: Triple-A Pawtucket
June 11: Triple-A Pawtucket (at Syracuse)
That means, on June 16 -- the day after Brad Penny is eligible to be traded without his consent, by the way -- Smoltz could be making his first start in a Red Sox uniform. It would be a Tuesday night home game against the Florida Marlins.
Fire up the hype machine: Five days later, he could make his second start against the Atlanta Braves.
But while Smoltz knows his tentative schedule backward and forward, he's doing his best not to get ahead of himself. His stuff -- particularly his slider, his trademark out pitch -- isn't yet where he wants it to be. Against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats on Tuesday, in fact, he hung a slider that one hitter stroked to right field for a single and hung another slider that the next hitter blasted to the right-field wall for a triple.
"You come into a game like this, and they’re trying to get hits off you," he said. "It’s always the balance of what do you try to do first. I was really pleased with my split and my changeup. I was a little displeased with my slider. That’s my No. 1 pitch. We’ll work on that this week."
To be fair, too, Smoltz surrendered the triple on the fourth straight slider he'd thrown -- and any Double-A hitter worth his salt is going to be able to hit the fourth straight slider he sees no matter how filthy it is.
The previous hitter, on the other hand, had seen three changeups in a row -- something you'll almost never see in a big-league game.
"Sometimes, you’ve got to do that, just to get the repetition down," Smoltz said. "It can cost you some runners and make you look bad, but in spring training, you don’t care that much about looking bad as much as you do trying these pitches under the gun. I was disappointed with a couple of pitches I threw in that inning, two sliders that hung, and it resulted in a run. But from the intensity standpoint and the ability to get out guys, I’m not really that consumed with it yet."
His fastball, otherwise, generally was sharp. He felt a twinge of panic in the first inning when he saw his first fastball register at 87 miles an hour on the MerchantsAuto.com Stadium radar gun -- but he quickly was assured that the gun tends to be three or four miles an hour slow.
With that in mind, Smoltz's fastballs consistently stayed between 88 and 92 miles an hour. He ramped it up to 91 miles an hour on the stadium gun (translating to 94 or 95 miles an hour) on a 1-2 pitch with two outs in the first inning. That pitch missed high and away, but he then struck the hitter out with a slider away.
"I just maintain that when I get to Boston, it’s going to be consistently over 91," he said. "But it’s irrelevant as long as my command stays the way it is. Sure enough, I’m sure there’s going to be some hitters that are going to command a little more attention, and the velocity is going to go up on those guys. But what I’m learning to do is to not necessarily reserve, but keep it down as much as I can here so I don’t get too carried away because I do have three more starts."
All in all, Smoltz threw 60 pitches in 3 1/3 innings of work. (He'd been allotted as many as 65 pitches, but when he got a first-pitch out to lead off the fourth, Portland manager Arnie Beyeler came out to get him.) He allowed three hits, including the run-scoring triple, and struck out two.
"The hardest part of my job is to not think ahead and not think about getting big-league hitters out," he said. "It’d be dangerous to do that right now, thinking about my pitches today. They’re all going to get a little bit sharper, and all the intensity is going to cause it to go up a little bit. ...
"My radar screen has Boston on it. As long as that’s the carrot dancing in front of you, you just keep doing what you’ve got to do."