John Smoltz sat with a big smile on his face after his longest rehab start of the year, convinced it wouldn't be long before the former Cy Young winner was his old, lights-out self.
"I don't think I'm far away," Smoltz said Sunday. "Today was more a familiar pitching that I thought I was capable of the last month, two months."
Smoltz looked strong and in command over five innings of work with the Greenville Drive. He allowed a run on four hits against the Charleston RiverDogs, but closed by retiring his final seven batters _ including the final three on strikeouts.
"I think I'm going to get a little more complete each time," Smoltz said, with ice on his repaired right shoulder. "For the most part, I'm really pleased with today's effort. I felt really fresh in the fifth inning, even though it's the longest stint I've had."
It was Smoltz's third minor-league rehab appearance in the past 11 days as he continues recovering from surgery to fix a torn labrum.
Smoltz pitched three innings for the Drive on May 21, then went 3 1-3 innings with Double-A Portland on May 27.
Smoltz say's he'll rejoin the Red Sox in Detroit this week, then wait for an expected start at Triple-A Pawtucket. His goal is to reach the bigs by mid-June, although he hopes his start with Boston does not occur during its weekend series against Smoltz's former club, Atlanta, from June 19-21.
The Red Sox then travel for three interleague games in Atlanta the next weekend.
"It seems like five years ago that I started this road to recovery," he said.
The 42-year-old Smoltz signed with Boston in the offseason after 20 seasons with the Braves. His name was on the marquee Sunday afternoon and fans turned out for a record attendance of 7,129 at 4-year-old Fluor Field _ the third straight record crowd in his three rehab starts.
Smoltz waved to fans as he walked in from pregame warmups, the got a standing ovation when he walked to the mound. Smoltz had been here three previous times on rehab assignments with the Greenville Braves, Atlanta's Double-A affiliate for 21 years until moving to Mississippi.
Matt and Jennifer Davis wore Smoltz jerseys with his familiar 29 from his Atlanta days.
"When he got hurt, we were hoping we'd get the chance to see him this season," Jennifer Davis said.
She and her mother, Janet Tindall, remembered a Mother's Day trip more than a decade ago where the two drove from Virginia to Pittsburgh to watch Smoltz pitch at Three Rivers Stadium.
"We've followed him a long time," Tindall said.
Smoltz gave his longtime supporters plenty to cheer about. He retired six in a row during one stretch, often topping 90 mph on the stadium's radar gun.
His toughest inning came with two outs in the third when Charleston's Abraham Almonte reached on a high bouncer to second, and Smoltz gave up singles to the next two hitters.
Smoltz regained his stride the next inning, setting Charleston down 1-2-3 and ending things with a nifty grab on a ball sent back up the middle.
He ended with a flourish in the fifth, striking out his final three batters _ each one looking at called strike three.
Smoltz got a second standing ovation as he walked off the mound despite trailing 1-0, tipping his cap to the appreciative crowd as he got near the dugout. He threw 73 pitches, 52 for strikes, and did not walk a batter.
"You could see the improvement from his first rehab start to this one," said Drive catcher Tim Federowicz, who was also behind the plate for Smoltz in Augusta, Ga., two weeks back. "He had a lot better control. He had a lot better action on his fastball, his breaking ball, everything looked really good today."
The Drive took Smoltz off the hook, tying the game at 1-all in the sixth before a three-run seventh gave them the lead in the 4-1 victory.
"We didn't want to give John Smoltz a loss in Greenville," Federowicz said.
The appearance may have given Smoltz some insight into his future big league home _ and the Red Sox biggest rival. Fluor Field was built as a replica of venerable Fenway Park, complete with a smaller, 30-foot version of the Green Monster in left field.
Plus, the RiverDogs are the South Atlantic League affiliate of the New York Yankees.
It's been an interesting strech for Smoltz, who married Kathryn Darden earlier this month, then began his rehab assignments less a week later. With 210 victories, 142 saves and a Hall of Fame spot in Cooperstown likely, Smoltz has been questioned too often about why he wants to return at all.
"It's not to end on my terms, although that would be great," Smoltz said. "I just still enjoy it."