It’s hard to say which is more astounding — that 25 years have gone by since John Smoltz struck out 15 against the Montreal Expos to set the Braves’ whiff record for a nine-inning game since the team moved to Atlanta, or that the record still stands.
“It’s almost commonplace now,” said Smoltz, now a broadcaster, of the high strikeout totals. “‘Somebody struck out 14,’ it’s like, ‘Wow, no big deal.’”
It’s the age of the strikeout, when power arms are coveted more than ever, but there’s still no Brave better than Smoltz — the Hall of Famer who turned 50 on May 15 — at piling on the strikeouts. He also holds the franchise career record for strikeouts with 3,011 in a Braves uniform. (The franchise single-game record is 18, accomplished by Hall of Fame left-hander Warren Spahn on June 14, 1952.)
Smoltz matched his 15-strikeout feat in 2005 in his second start back in the rotation after four seasons as a closer. But he gave up a two-run homer on a two-strike pitch to Carlos Beltran that day and lost to Pedro Martinez and the Mets 6-1.
“I was so disappointed,” Smoltz said. “I would have rather not struck out one guy and win a game than to strike out that many and lose.”
So the 15-strikeout game more crystallized in his mind is his 2-1 complete game win May 24, 1992 at Olympic Stadium.
“I always enjoyed pitching in Montreal for some reason,” Smoltz said. “Maybe it was because of the controlled environment. I liked the domes. I liked pitching in conditions that were consistent.”
Smoltz made some of his more memorable starts in Montreal. He won his career-high 24th game there during his Cy Young season in 1996. He also got into a shouting match on the mound with his friend and catcher Greg Olson in 1991 after they couldn’t get together on signs.
But by May 24, 1992, a Sunday afternoon, the two were on their usual great terms, and in an early rhythm.
“It’s all about his slider,” Olson recalled. “If he’s got the nasty bite on his slider, usually it means a) he’s going to strike out a lot of guys and b) he’s going to beat the living heck out of me. When that slider bites, it’s usually about six or seven inches past the plate and that means I’ve got to block it and they hurt.”
That day, he said, they hurt in a good way.
The Expos’ lineup featured future Brave Marquis Grissom in the leadoff spot, who struck out once, followed by Delino DeShields, Moises Alou, Larry Walker and Tim Wallach — all of whom struck out twice.
Smoltz had 10 strikeouts after five innings, and that’s while striking out the pitcher, Mark Gardner, just once.
The general recipe, as it was for much of Smoltz’s career, was working ahead with his fastball and finishing hitters off with a nasty slider. He gave up one run on six hits and walked only two at a time in his career when he could get wild.
“I was in a tunnel, similar to Game 7 in ’91,” said Smoltz referring to his classic showdown with the Twins’ Jack Morris in the 1991 World Series. “I felt like everything was coming out easy, no strain, no stress. I wasn’t fighting anything, not altering anything. That didn’t happen a lot physically in the course of my career.”
Smoltz said he visited a chiropractor in Montreal a few days before and felt great going into the start. Mentally, he didn’t let his mounting strikeout total distract him either because he had only a narrow lead and wanted to get through nine innings. As Smoltz remembers it, he wasn’t aware of the strikeout record until he was told after the game.
“When I start counting things, I get trouble,” he said. “That game was more about finishing the deal than anything else for me.”
Olson put the Braves ahead 2-0 in the first inning on a broken-bat, bases-loaded single, and those were all the runs Smoltz got — or needed. He allowed one run in the fifth after giving up a leadoff double and entered the ninth inning with a 2-1 lead.
He needed one strikeout to break the Atlanta record held by Denny Lemaster, who struck out 14 on Aug. 14, 1966, the team’s first year in Atlanta. But when Larry Walker, the Expos’ No. 3 hitter and a five-time All-star, strode to the plate to lead off the ninth Smoltz just wanted to be crisp.
“If you look at (manager) Bobby (Cox’s) track record, when we were doing well, there was no bullpen,” Smoltz said. “The way we were taught was just don’t give him a reason.”
Smoltz didn’t. He got both Walker and Tim Wallach to fly out. Then he finished it off and nailed down the record by striking out future Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter on four pitches for Carter’s third strikeout of the day.
“I had such admiration for him anyways, not only as a player, as a person,” Smoltz said.
Smoltz threw 133 pitches, which in 1992, at age 25, wasn’t seen as overly alarming. He walked off with the second of his nine complete games that season, a career high.
“I’ve been in more dominant games,” Smoltz said. “I learned to be more dominant by (expanding) the arsenal (of pitches). In ’96 — I couldn’t say it then, but I can say it now – there were games it didn’t seem fair I was so locked in and on point. In ‘92, I was still in awe of guys of playing in the game.”
Not on May 24, though.