ATLANTA John Smoltz got to spend an entire game in the dugout. No pressure. No apprehension. No wondering if he'd get called on to pitch.
Ahh, like the good ol' days.
''It's what it felt like as a starter,'' Smoltz said. ''I just kicked back and recharged.''
Now, back to reality. He's a closer. There's no time for kicking back and recharging. On just about any given night, the Atlanta Braves are ready to summon Smoltz from the bullpen to perform one of the most pressure-packed jobs in sports.
Succeed, and his team wins. Fail, and his team most likely loses.
No one handles that burden better than Smoltz, who transformed himself into the most dominating closer in the game. Last season, his first full year in the role, he set a National League record with 55 saves. This season, he's already got 42 saves with nearly two months to go.
At this rate, another mark will fall: Bobby Thigpen's major league record of 57 saves, set 13 years ago for the Chicago White Sox. Smoltz is on pace for 61 saves.
''When he comes into a game, they win and it's basically automatic,'' Los Angeles outfielder Dave Roberts said earlier in the season.
That's the attitude of every Braves opponent. Better have a lead going to the eighth or ninth inning. Otherwise, game over.
''When they look down in that tunnel and say, 'Uh, oh, he's warming up,''' Smoltz said, his lips curling into a satisfying smile. ''That's what excites me. I love it.''
Smoltz was at his best on the most recent homestand, saving all four Atlanta wins without a modicum of wasted effort. In one game, he needed only four pitches to get three outs. In another, he threw nothing but fastballs to produce three straight flyouts. On Saturday, he struck out the side with 12 pitches, mixing 98-mph fastballs with 88-mph splitters and sliders. He was, as manager Bobby Cox says, ''unhittable.''
''When I'm throwing splits and fastballs, it's hard to guess with me,'' Smoltz said. ''I usually have the luxury of the lead when I'm coming in, so I try to use that to my advantage. I don't think about anything except, 'Get the first hitter.' That limits momentum.''
Cox gave his closer a day off Sunday, letting him watch the game from the dugout. He wouldn't have been needed anyway in an 8-4 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But Smoltz will certainly be ready to go Tuesday night when the Braves, who have baseball's best record and are running away with the NL East, begin a three-game series at Milwaukee.
The right-hander already set a mark for most saves in consecutive years with 97, three more than Dennis Eckersley's old standard with the Oakland A's in 1991-92. Smoltz also appeared in 73 consecutive games won by his team, a mark that could stand for a while. The previous record was 53, also set by Eckersley in the early '90s.
It's only appropriate that Smoltz is taking out many of Eckersley's records, since they followed similar career paths. Both established themselves as starters. Both switched to the bullpen well into their 30s and became even more dominating.
The 36-year-old Smoltz, though, has a chance to do something no one else has: win the Cy Young Award as starter and reliever. Smoltz took care of the first part in 1996, when he won a career-high 24 games. Now, in a year when no NL starter stands above the crowd, he's certainly one of the leading contenders as a closer.
If Smoltz wins his second Cy Young, he would be the first reliever to take the award since Eckersley in 1992. The last NL reliever to accomplish the feat was Mark Davis of San Diego in 1989.
While Smoltz tries to ignore all the talk, he can't get away from it.
''I tell myself no, I'm not thinking about it, but I know the longer it goes on the more talk there's going to be about it,'' he said. ''Sure, it's enticing.''
Not all encompassing, however. Smoltz, the winningest pitcher in postseason history, said individual accomplishments won't take precedence over being at the top of his game once the playoffs begin.
''If I go into the last week and it's a matter of being sharp for the postseason or getting the record, I won't be getting the record,'' he insisted.
Smoltz is still motivated by the worst performance of his career. Early last season, he gave up eight earned runs in just two-thirds of an inning against the New York Mets.
''Fear motivates me,'' he said. ''That's how I got through last year. Every game, I thought I could give up eight runs. I'll never forget it.''
Smoltz keeps his fiery emotions burning just beneath the surface. On the mound, he never reveals any emotion, though his glistening eyes look as though they could burn a hole through the hitter.
''A switch turns on and he knows it's time to go after people,'' teammate Russ Ortiz said. ''He's intense, but he knows how to harness it into his pitching.''
Smoltz doesn't take time to savor his success.
''I always think I can do better,'' he said. ''When you have failure, that's when you've learned a great lesson.''
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