John Smoltz may have thrown the last pitch of his storied career. The Boston Red Sox cut the struggling Smoltz on Friday, a day after the New York Yankees sent the 42-year-old righty to yet another early exit.
Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein traveled down to New York to personally tell Smoltz that the team had designated him for assignment. The move gives Boston 10 days to trade, release or send Smoltz to the minors.
"When he woke up today, he said, 'How can I help the team win?'" Epstein said. "But he's a realist and understands the results have not been what we were looking for."
After more than two decades of big wins in Atlanta, Smoltz signed with the Red Sox last January, hoping he could recover from surgery on his right shoulder. After eight starts, the numbers weren't pretty for a pitcher with Hall of Fame credentials: 2-5 with an 8.32 ERA.
Boston cut him while in a three-way race with the Yankees and Tampa Bay, and with Smoltz still searching for answers after one of the worst outings of his career.
"Pretty humbled right now, the way things have gone," Smoltz said Thursday night, after the Yankees chased him in the fourth inning of a 13-6 romp. "Time may not be on my side if this continues."
He was right. The eight-time All-Star was not at his locker at Yankee Stadium, though his No. 29 jersey hung in his cubicle and his shower flip-flops were in his stall.
"He's certainly not a quitter, that's one thing he's not," Epstein said. "So it never entered his mind to stop pitching."
Said Red Sox manager Terry Francona: "I think we appreciated what his pedigree and past was, and respected it a lot."
"Just got to a point where we needed to help our team to be better," he said.
Boston began the day in second place in the AL East, with a rotation minus injured Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield, and made a series of roster moves. They also designated lefty reliever Billy Traber for assignment, recalled right-hander Junichi Tazawa from Triple-A Pawtucket and claimed infielder Chris Woodward off waivers from Seattle.
The Yankees tagged Smoltz for eight runs on nine hits and four walks in 3 1-3 innings.
"Even though he got hit, there was some cleanness starting to appear," Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek said.
At 212-152 with 154 saves and a 3.32 ERA, Smoltz compiled a glittering resume after making his major league debut in 1988.
Along with aces Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Smoltz helped Atlanta to its single World Series championship, won a Cy Young Award and is the only pitcher with more than 200 victories and 150 saves.
Smoltz was the lone pitcher with the Braves during their entire record run of division titles from 1991 through 2005. Maddux retired after last season with the Dodgers. Glavine, like Maddux in his 40s and a 300-game winner, was abruptly cut by Atlanta in June before making his major league return.
"He and Glav and Maddux, they were the Big Three," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said Friday night. "John was always a big-game pitcher, a workhorse and a great teammate. When you see a kid like that start out, you say, `He's an All-Star caliber-type pitcher that's going to have some big years.' And he did."
"I was kind of surprised, but I know it was a rough day yesterday. I watched him pitch for three innings," Cox said. "But everybody's looking for pitching right now, whether it be bullpen or starters, so I think John will be given another opportunity somewhere."
Smoltz was one of the best pressure pitchers of his era, going 15-4 with four saves and a 2.65 ERA in the postseason. It was precisely his ability to win those clutch games that prompted the Red Sox to sign him to a $5.5 million, one-year contract, even though they knew it'd take a while before he pitched for them.
Smoltz worked his way back through the minors, then got hit hard by Washington on June 25 in his Red Sox debut.
Seemingly intent on throwing hard and inside, Smoltz started well Thursday night. In the first inning, he got Derek Jeter on a grounder and struck out Johnny Damon and Alex Rodriguez.
"He ran into a really hot team last night," Damon said Friday. "I hope there's more baseball left for him."
The Yankees chased Smoltz with an eight-run burst in the fourth. Melky Cabrera hit a three-run homer, and Smoltz handed the ball to Francona after an intentional walk to Rodriguez.
"I'm not doing it right now," Smoltz said later. "I'm a big enough man to stand up here and say I'm not doing it."