John Smoltz is one of the best pitchers in postseason baseball history. In 209 playoff innings the righty posted an ERA of 2.67, throwing in numerous high-leverage, famous games — none bigger than Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. That night at the Metrodome, the then 24-year-old right tossed 7 1/3 scoreless innings for the Braves. Not a bad night at the office, except Twin starter Jack Morris twirled a 10-inning shuout in a game that finished 1-0.
Tonight Smoltz will be in Kauffman Stadium as part of MLB Network’s coverage of the 2014 World Series on “MLB Tonight.” The Big Lead spoke with the Braves legend and future Hall of Famer by phone Wednesday morning ahead of the decisive game between the Giants and Royals. We talked about the mentality of throwing in a Game 7, what San Francisco should do with ace Madison Bumgarner and how the playoffs have changed since the introduction of the Wild Card.
TBL: It’s Game 7 tonight, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but does this Royals team feel at all similar to that first Braves team (which finished last in 1990) of yours that went to the World Series because it was sort of unexpected. Not many people would have thought the Royals would be here.
John Smoltz: Well, a little bit. To say improbable would be accurate. This is one of those improbable runs that nobody could have seen coming. Statistically and even, you know, from a 29-year (World Series drought) they got in and I don’t think anybody that had any knowledge about baseball at all could have predicted their route. Meaning, they don’t lose a game until they get to the World Series. It was pretty incredible. It’s the way they do it. It’s unconventional. People were drawn to see how they could continue this magic. Could they possibly keep stealing bases? Obviously that’s not going to be the case, but they still find ways to win and do the things that in their own way make them exciting. This crowd and this town has been on fire.
TBL: You pitched through the changes in the playoff format. You guys were in the playoffs so often, how much did it change when they added the Divisional Series. Did that change your whole approach? Now, obviously, there’s the Wild Card play-in round which both these teams went through, does that make a different approach for a club in October knowing you have to win that extra session?
JS: You think about ’91, ’91 was so incredible the way we were able to chase down a couple teams and win the division and then go on with two seven-game series. I don’t think there is going to be another 1991 in that two last-place teams are in the World Series, you have two epic seven-game series. When ’95 rolled around and they introduced the Wild Card, I’m reminded about how hard it was for us. We’d been to two World Series already and hadn’t won them. We go to our third, but we had to start in a new format, on the road in a best-of-5 in this new introduced Wild Card against the Colorado Rockies, I don’t know if you remember how great they were, I just remember the journey being that much harder. From that point on there’s been some tweaks to the elimination game. Again, I don’t think anyone could have ever envisioned two Wild Card elimination games and two teams getting into the World Series after playing a one-game playoff, basically.
TBL: As a former player, do you like that, that a team that could barely win 82 games and then have a chance. Do you think it devalues anything?
JS: No, I’m not a fan of it basically because I don’t think its what baseball is, but baseball has locked in on it because of the viewership of a must-win, one-game-to-get-in type format. The one thing about baseball is it plays 162 games in the regular season and everything is a best-of-3 series, basically. To have one game get you in, it is what it is. Credit to these two teams for getting to the World Series after having played an extra game and extending one pitcher, usually your best. I didn’t think anybody thought this would happen this soon.
TBL: Let’s go back to 1991 Game 7, which was a pitcher’s duel between you and Jack Morris. Going into that game did you get any special instructions from Bobby Cox, did you have a shorter leash, did you think it would be an all-hands-on-deck thing like it probably will be tonight, what was the pregame plan? Were you going to go as long as you can or was it if you put a couple runners on, someone else would be ready to go?
JS: The game has severely changed. We’ll see in the next few years if that’s something that’s changed for the better. What I mean is, in 1991, I was able to go at the end of the season to get us into the playoffs. I went nine innings to pitch a complete game, I went nine innings in Game 7 against the Pirates (in the NLCS) to get us into the World Series and was headed to go nine innings in the World Series but no one had scored a run. You’re not going to see that anymore. The way teams are constructed, especially these two teams, you’re more apt to see 12 pitchers in tonight’s game than to see anyone try to go six or seven. That’s the way it is. That’s the way the Royals are built. Their starter knows he’s not going to be given a chance to pitch a lot of innings, so he knows he has to keep them in the game. The same thing on the other side.
The approach was I knew I had a shorter leash for obvious reasons I needed to pitch really well and fortunately I was able to.
TBL: You picked up a reputation and the stats back you up, what was it about you in big games? Did anything change? Did you wake up the day of a Game 7 and feel different? For you, did that day in Minnesota, after the Puckett home run the day before, feel different from the regular season finale or the game against the Pirates?
JS: I don’t know about everybody else, but I envisioned I pitched 100 Game 7s when I was a kid. I put myself in every scenario you could imagine. I allowed myself in my imagination to win it in every one of those. I wasn’t afraid to fail. I loved the moment. I didn’t have a cockiness, but I had an inner cockiness to say, basically, ‘get on my back and here we go.’ I loved it. It seemed to take me to the next level that a regular season game couldn’t do unless it was the game to get us into the playoffs type scenario. I pitched with a desire and effort that was unmatched in a regular season game and I’ve always said as a player I wish there were less games in the regular season and more games in the postseason. I think it’s the most exciting time.
TBL: You were pretty good right from the start as a young kid. We see Yordano Ventura last night who is 23 and Madison Bumgarner who’s 25. It seems everyone is different handling pressure on the big stage. As you said, you were ready for it.
JS: I really believe there’s a makeup. There’s a mental toughness that allows you to handle things that maybe the game, for people, goes too fast. The ‘what if’ scenarios suffocate them. To me, I don’t think you can be afraid to fail. Most people think, “oh, that comes with the territory,” but it really doesn’t. There’s a lot of players that put themselves in situation where they have that out-of-body experience and the next thing you know you’re like, what happened? I truly believe that if you’re not afraid to fail and you allow the moment to not be bigger … you can slow the game down and actually make it to your advantage. Look I feasted off guys who got aggressive and wanted to be the hero. I feasted off situations where the aggression and the moment makes people do things differently. I relished in it. I feel that moment was something I prepared my whole life for.
TBL: A guy like Bumgarner getting the ball in Game 5 and saying I’m going the whole way has to make you smile, does it take you back?
JS: Yeah I didn’t think we’d ever see it again. It’s refreshing to watch what you’re paid to do. What he’s been able to do in this day and age where we have a specialized bullpen, and the game is condensed for what starters are able to do, it’s refreshing. That’s what you’re supposed to be when you’re a frontline starter. You’re supposed to be that guy where everybody goes, ‘hey, this is his.’
What’s surprising is the fact that Kansas City will have the chance to win the World Series and I don’t know this factually, but may have the fewest innings ever from its starting staff to win the Series. Only one starter has gone seven innings and that was Ventura last night.
TBL: If you’re Bochy tonight, knowing you have Bumgarner back there only on two days rest and he’s sort of in the Royals head a little bit, how would you use him? Do you use him knowing he could cancel out the Royals bullpen that can turn it into a six-inning game or do you rely on his presence, knowing he could be there?
JS: To me this is a hard situation. If you’re going pitch him in (Games) 1, 4 and 7 which I think everyone thought was going to happen, then you’re actually putting him in a tougher situation having him come out of the pen. I don’t really know the scenario that has to play out for him to be the bridge or the gap. They’ve got a great bullpen. You’re talking about two lefthanders (sic) who haven’t given up a run down there. They’re used to the situations.
To me I don’t know if Bruce (Bochy) can use Bumgarner with a man on first, man on second type scenario. I think the best way to use him is a clean inning where you know he’s going to start the sixth or the seventh. It’s not as easy as people think that they’ve got this great starter down there that’s a weapon and its an automatic he’ll come out of the pen and be able to do what he can as a starter. It’s a different mindset that comes into play. Having said that, Bumgarner has the best mindset to handle it but I’m trying to envision what scenario would happen where they would go to him before anybody else. The scenario I’m thinking about doesn’t bode well for San Francisco because that means they’re behind or they didn’t get the depth out of (Game 7 starter Tim) Hudson that they wanted.
TBL: You were teammates with Tim Hudson, who’s now 39, for a couple years in Atlanta. This is his first trip to the World Series. You were a young kid in your first Series and he’s right at the end of his career. What do you think is his approach after waiting his whole life for this?
JS: The worst part is waiting. He’s waited 17 years, but literally waiting to pitch tonight. When you get out there you hope to be in control of your emotions. It’s a fine line. You can’t think to pitch perfectly but you want to pitch perfectly. You want to make those decisions easier for Bruce Bochy. You don’t want to start off rough or give up two runs early. The team that is going to have the most patience, but yet doesn’t allow the game to get out of hand.
It’s the hardest game to manage. It really is. Bobby (Cox) had a tough decision (in 1991) it’s 0-0 in the eighth inning and when to take out the starter. Even in Minnesota, when to take out Morris … and Morris is basically like you’re not taking me out. That’s not going to be the case here. They’re going to err on the side of caution because you have to many more “fresher options.” Whatever starter basically gets their game going the fastest will have an opportunity to win Game 7.
Again, not a lot of these games have played out to script. I just have a feeling this game will have a ton of pitching changes.
TBL: It feels like this Game 7 tonight will be the antithesis of 1991 with two guys dueling and trading zeros … and you were in a lot of those during your career. When you see the other guy on the mound like Morris, or say an Andy Pettitte or someone else, do you look at each other at some point in the game and start pushing each other as competitors?
JS: It has something to do with it. Quite honestly, I still sit here and go, ‘I didn’t give up a run in seventh game that year and I got one win.’ Typically you look at Jack Morris and you know, ‘golly he’s going to be tough tonight and you have to be perfect.’ He was and same thing, even though it wasn’t a Game 7 pitching against Andy Pettitte (Game 6 1996 World Series) 0-0 and it’s 1-0 and you lose 1-0 on an unearned run. On your end you’re not pitching against those guys, but in essence you are.
TBL: Changing gears a little, have you enjoyed the transition to working as an analyst on TV? It seems you’ve taken to it quickly right out of retirement (in 2009). Does it surprise you how much you like it?
JS: Well, I like the biggest stage. In this industry I’ve enjoyed watching and explaining and trying to translate what its like. I can’t think of a situation or scenario that I haven’t been in. Whether it’s a starter or a closer or a big game. The fact that watching guys go through it a first time or veterans do it is pretty amazing. I don’t know if everybody at home can understand the components it takes and the scenarios that play out. There are situations where guys don’t handle it. There are moments where you watch a young guy and a rising superstar and see how easy it is for him to handle it.
I said this before it started, whoever wins the World Series will be one of the greatest stories, from improbability, to win it. If San Francisco wins it there’s another scenario, this is unreal. This team used their best pitcher of Game 1 of the postseason, they didn’t get a lot of depth but that one starter, but everything else pieced together. Great individual play. They beat a great Washington Nationals team. Both these teams knocked off the best records in baseball and did it relatively easy. San Francisco did it in four games in a best of five, while Kansas City (beat the Angels) in three.
TBL: Does it annoy you, maybe that’s not the right word, to look back and see all the success the Braves had in the regular season compared to the unpredictability of the playoffs? Especially, as we talked about, when it went to three rounds? Is baseball going to where anyone can win and do you think that’s a good thing, just the way the playoffs are now with the play-in games?
JS: Some people say is it truly random. My only fundamental problem with it and I don’t think there’s a quick answer or easy easy answer. They’re totally different ways to play baseball. There’s 162 games. The best teams are always going to get in the playoffs, but the best team is not necessarily always going to win in the playoffs because it’s not the same format. There’s too many days off. You don’t use the same components of your team that got you there in 162 games and 18 off days. I wish there was a way to baseball (in the playoffs) with less off days and more like the regular season where you’re forced to use a four, five man rotation and can’t go to a bullpen every single day. [Note: Since beating the Athletics on Sept. 30 in the Wild Card game the Royals have played 13 games, with 15 days off in October.]
When you think about it, Kansas City could have never won eight games in a row in the regular season using every reliever like they have. They could never have done it. They had the perfect scenario, the perfect storm. The off days came at the right time. They won. This is a Series that has dragged on. The games that they’ve won, they’ve had to have really good performances from their starters to get to the bullpen. The games that they haven’t won, they didn’t get that. They’ve extended their bullpen in a seven game series where last night was huge not to use their three-man formula. That’s the best way I can put it. They could not win eight games in a row using (Kelvin) Herrera, (Wade) Davis and (Greg) Holland eight games in a row. That’s impossible in the regular season. It can’t be done. So, that’s kind of what clubs are dealing with when they get in. Two teams got hot at the right time and had a more complete bullpen than most of the teams that were out there with the exception of Baltimore. To me, Baltimore kind of had a mirror image of what San Francisco has but couldn’t beat Kansas City in any game.
TBL: Going forward do you think teams will think they just have to get in and if they have a good bullpen they can get by with okay starting pitchers, or would you rather have those reliable front-end starters, especially how offense has decreased?
JS: I definitely think teams will try to do it a certain way, the Kansas City way. You still need starters to give you innings in the regular season or you’ll wear your bullpen out. If the Kansas City Royals had not pitched innings in their rotation, if they didn’t have four guys (James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Ventura) close to 200 innining, this is not possible. You can’t turn on a switch and all of a sudden become that nasty bullpen. The emphasis still has to be on starting pitching and that’s where I’m concerned that we’re going away from the formula paying you frontline starters to pitch 240 innings and you know, securing your health of your bullpen at the end and vice-versa. I don’t know that this formula will be successful every year if you don’t get any depth out of your starters. I don’t know if you can win 12 games. Kansas City might be that one team where you go, WOW, they were one of the best bullpens we’ve ever seen.
[Photos via Getty, Smoltz photo is from the 1992 World Series]