John Smoltz's long journey back is nearly over.
Major shoulder surgery, nearly 12 months without a game and six rehab starts are behind him. The final test of the 42-year-old's patience: more than a week before he steps on a big-league mound for his first game with the Boston Red Sox.
"It's going to be that long eight days," Smoltz said. "I'm prepared for that. It's been a long year."
The eight-time All-Star is scheduled to start next Thursday at Washington. In his final scheduled tuneup, he pitched four innings for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox on Wednesday night, giving up one run on Keith Ginter's leadoff homer for the Charlotte Knights in the third.
Smoltz allowed three hits, one walk and a wild pitch and struck out two on 61 pitches, 36 strikes. He also pitched the equivalent of two innings in the bullpen before the game.
"I just lost the feel for the baseball and struggled with that," he said, "but, overall, physically, I felt great. ... I'm not a guy that doesn't throw his fastball pretty much where he wants to and my split was all over so it was a little bit of a struggle feel-wise."
But he said he's not worried and was encouraged that he adjusted when he didn't have his best stuff in Pawtucket's 9-3 win over the Knights, an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. His overall rehab numbers starting May 21 with Single-A Greenville, S.C., were impressive: 27 1-3 innings, 18 hits, 21 strikeouts, 4 walks and a 2.63 ERA.
Smoltz is the only pitcher with at least 200 wins and 150 saves, all in his 20 seasons with the Atlanta Braves.
He last pitched for them on June 2, 2008. Eight days later, he had surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The Red Sox signed him in January to a one-year, $5.5 million free agent contract, hoping he'd be ready by midseason and be fresh in the postseason.
He accomplished the first part.
"Now it's time to start getting ready for the things that I know will take me through not only a baseball game but take me through the season," Smoltz said.
He plans to throw two side sessions and study video before facing the Nationals. Boston manager Terry Francona said Tuesday it wouldn't be "the worst thing" to use a six-man rotation for a short time.
"It looks like sometimes guys are going to throw 120 pitches maybe or 115 and have that extra day (off) to be able to do that," Smoltz said. "Maybe that's part of it. I don't know."
He retired the first five batters Wednesday on 14 pitches then allowed a single to Wilson Betemit before striking out Cole Armstrong to end the second. Then Ginter, who totaled 33 homers with Milwaukee in 2003 and 2004, lined a 91 mph pitch over the left-center field fence and onto a grassy hill filled with fans seated on blankets.
Had Ginter hit it at Fenway Park, it might have been just a single off the high wall.
But during Wednesday's outing, Smoltz wasn't concentrating on fine tuning his pitching in the minors.
"I can honestly say when I was out there today I didn't think one bit about pitching in the big leagues," he said.
He can start doing that now that his next game will be in a Boston uniform.
"While I'm there I lead the team in innings watched from the dugout," Smoltz said, "but soon it'll change."