Shoulder injury leaves Smoltz in limbo

The Baltimore Sun

Observations, opinions and musings from last week in Major League Baseball. There have been plenty of big-name players getting injured this year, but last week set the standard.

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols (calf strain) hit the disabled list, and so did Chicago Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano (broken hand) and Cleveland Indians catcher Victor Martinez (elbow surgery).

Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (shoulder tear) will be out for at least four more weeks, and Indians pitcher Jake Westbrook is done for the year after elbow-ligament surgery.

Yet the most sobering injury news of the week came out of Atlanta, where it is beginning to look as if John Smoltz might not pitch again.

Certainly, a mere mortal would shut it down for life, anyway.

Smoltz, 41, has significant deterioration of the labrum in his right shoulder, which was discovered during surgery last week.

He originally was confident he could make a comeback, but now he won't be able to pick up a baseball for four months.

Whether he'll be able to throw it effectively - and without pain - won't be known for a while. And so his career hangs in the balance.

But this is Smoltz, whose competitiveness is legendary. If someone says he can't do something, he works until he masters the task.

"I'm going to try my best to see if I can come back," he told ESPN.

But he also said he understands there are plenty of variables and that "if it works, OK, great, if not, I'll resume the rest of my life."

The reality is he is at an age where most can no longer rebound from serious injury. And, besides his inner drive, there is no reason to.

He is an eight-time All-Star, a Cy Young Award winner and a World Series champion, and he has posted a 2.65 ERA in 40 postseason games. He has 210 wins, 154 saves and a spot in Cooperstown waiting for him.

D-Train wreck

Has there been a steeper fall from stardom than that of the Detroit Tigers' Dontrelle Willis?

OK, maybe Cleveland's injured designated hitter, Travis Hafner, is in the discussion, but Willis is the leader in the clubhouse for 2008.

The charismatic left-hander with the high leg kick won 22 games for the Florida Marlins in 2005, finishing second in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

He was demoted to Single-A Lakeland (Fla.) Tuesday, a day after he allowed eight earned runs on three hits, five walks and two homers in 1 1/3 innings for Detroit.

Willis was traded to Detroit in December and promptly signed a three-year, $29 million extension. He hyperextended his right knee in his second start, missed six weeks and has been awful since. He has a 10.32 ERA and has walked 21 batters in 11 1/3 innings.

The Tigers say Willis was sent to Lakeland because it is their minor league headquarters and he'll get the most attention there. But the speculation is that other affiliates were too close to Detroit and its media, and the Tigers wanted him away from the spotlight.

Willis thinks his mechanics are out of whack. But there's also the thought that he has put on weight and can no longer master his trademark leg kick.

He's only 26, and he seemingly has too much talent to disappear. If he did, reporters across the country would mourn. He's one of baseball's most engaging personalities.

But that won't matter if he can't throw strikes.

Migrating Byrd

Do you want the definition of veteran journeyman starter?

Look up Paul Byrd in the Baseball Encyclopedia.

The Indians' soft-tossing right-hander picked up his 100th win this month, making him the first pitcher in baseball history to reach the century mark in wins without winning at least 30 games with one team.

Byrd, 37, has been with six big league clubs since making his debut with the New York Mets in 1995. Here's his breakdown: Mets (three wins), Braves (12), Philadelphia Phillies (22), Kansas City Royals (23), Los Angeles Angels (12) and Indians (28).

Byrd, who almost signed with the Orioles in the 2005 offseason, has won 10 or more games in a season five times in his career.

And here's betting he pitches into his 40s. With some club, or several.

Pinstriped pain

If New York Yankees fans need an explanation for their team's slow start, here's a good, if not tired, one: injuries. Wednesday marked the third time this year that their nine starters from Opening Day have started together.

For a little context, the Orioles, who have remained rather healthy so far, started their Opening Day lineup nine other times - in April alone.

It would have been even more if the shortstop position were stable for the Orioles early on. Now, with the Orioles' Luis Hernandez in the minors and the Yankees' Jorge Posada healthy again, New York could catch the Orioles quickly in that cohesive lineup race.

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