For 21 seasons, John Smoltz was one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers — the only one in major league history to record both 200 wins and 150 saves.
But it all started for the former Brave on a Saturday afternoon 31 years ago today in New York.
Smoltz had been promoted from Triple-A Richmond after going 10-5 with a 2.79 ERA and 115 strikeouts in 135-1/3 innings.
He had come to Atlanta 11 months earlier following a trade with Detroit for righthander Doyle Alexander, 18 years his senior. Alexander went 9-0 down the stretch as the Tigers won the American League East. Smoltz reported to Richmond slightly disappointed.
The 6-foot-3, 185 pound Smoltz took the mound before a sellout (though not capacity) crowd of 43,637 at the Mets’ Shea Stadium.
He faced a Mets lineup that included Lenny Dykstra at leadoff, Darryl Strawberry at cleanup and Gary Carter at the bottom of the order.
The Mets were quiet after the first inning, when Dykstra was hit by a pitch, stole second and scored on a Dave Magadan double.
For eight innings Smoltz showed all the signs of a 20-game winner, tossing a pair of strikeouts while allowing just four hits and one earned run.
The highlight, Smoltz said at the time, was the seventh inning, when he struck out Strawberry to lead off the inning.
The Braves’ offense meanwhile piled on six runs to end a five-game losing streak with the victory.
Here’s what appeared in the AJC the following day under the headline, “Mets Are Merely Triple-A to Smoltz:”
How was John Smoltz supposed to avoid all the pressure? Only 21 years old, he was making his major-league debut Saturday in sold- out Shea Stadium, against the National League's best team, in the country's largest city.
There were 43,637 in the house and only 12 - Smoltz’s family and friends from Lansing, Mich. — were known Braves fans. A guy could get scarred for life, or at least for the first weeks of his career.
But Smoltz turned the tables on the New York Mets, allowing four hits through eight innings and emerging a 6-1 winner on a four-hitter.
“I was trying not to get clobbered,” Smoltz said. “I didn’t give them that much credit and imagined they were a Triple-A team. I listened to Bruce (Benedict) and it seemed easy. I wasn’t as nervous as I was in my first Triple-A start.”
Mets’ manager Davey Johnson grudgingly praised Smoltz.
“There’s always the question about whether it was the pitching or just lousy hitting,” Johnson said. “We had heard he threw 88 or 89 miles an hour, a straight fastball. (He reached 92 mph Saturday.)
“I thought he mixed his pitches up a little better as the game went on. We hit a few balls decently, but you’ve got to give the kid credit.”
Smotlz finished his baseball career with a 213-155 record, 154 saves, a 3.33 ERA and 3,084 strikeouts in 3,473 innings over 21 seasons, the first 20 of those with the Braves. He was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2015.
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