For inspiration, Joba turns to Smoltz
Legendary starter-turned-reliever offers advice to setup man
BOSTON -- Watching Braves games as a child in Nebraska made Joba Chamberlain appreciate John Smoltz, one of the best big league pitchers to stand on a mound. Now, Smoltz is an analyst for MLB Network. He is already making an impact, even if no cameras are rolling.
Prior to Tuesday evening's 6-4 Yankees win over the Red Sox, in which Chamberlain struck out back-to-back batters in rather electric fashion, the right-handed reliever saw Smoltz loitering around the visitors' clubhouse. Approaching his childhood hero, the chatty Chamberlain struck up a conversation.
Over the next 15 minutes, the two spoke about fastballs and sliders, starting games and relieving. Chamberlain hardly could have chosen a better mentor -- Smoltz's 21 seasons in the big leagues included 12 as a starter, four as a lights-out closer, then another five as a starter.
Smoltz knows a thing or two -- or three or four -- about Chamberlain's situation. His advice, now that Chamberlain is a reliever once more? Simple. Trust your stuff.
"That really clicked," Chamberlain said. "That made sense. This is a one-inning game, and you have to understand that."
Chamberlain's outing on Tuesday did not even qualify as a one-inning game. After Yankees manager Joe Girardi mixed and matched two other relievers against the first two Red Sox batters in the eighth, Chamberlain jogged out of the bullpen with one out and the tying run on second base.
With a surge of electricity unseen since the early months of the 2008 season, he blew a 96-mph fastball by Adrian Beltre before dropping an 87-mph slider underneath the bat of J.D. Drew. Two fist pumps and one subdued -- by his standards -- burst of emotion later, Chamberlain walked back to the dugout with coursing adrenaline and untold amounts of confidence.
As Girardi cautioned after the game, Chamberlain's transformation from starter back to reliever is not yet complete. But Tuesday provided the most compelling evidence yet that Chamberlain can still be the dynamic setup man he was as a rookie in 2007.
"For me, the attitude is different," catcher Jorge Posada said. "As a reliever, I see Joba very, very strong when he comes in there."
One of the few worries to seep into the Bronx last October was the status of Chamberlain, who relieved in the playoffs but never came closer to recapturing his old energy or velocity as a setup man. Girardi chalked that up to his training as a starter, which required proper pacing and an extensive repertoire of pitches. Others feared that Chamberlain might never reacquire the skill set needed to be a strong reliever.
Yet the flashes Chamberlain showed at Fenway Park indicated otherwise. There was no concern with painting corners, no toying around with curveballs and changeups. Plain and simple, Chamberlain let it rip.
Of his nine pitches, five were fastballs, none slower than 94 mph. The other four were sliders, most with nasty break.
"He's worked very hard in a short time to get back to relieving form," Girardi said. "It was there tonight."
Chamberlain trusted his stuff. And somewhere, Smoltz nodded.
"He understands," Chamberlain said. "He had to do it."
Smoltz, battling injuries, was already a Hall of Famer-in-waiting in 2001, when the Braves took the risk of turning one of the best starters in franchise history into a closer. The 24-year-old Chamberlain, by contrast, still has much to prove.
Earlier this week, Girardi said that he wanted someone to step up and claim the Yankees' vacant setup role, which Chamberlain held so convincingly at the end of 2007. Rather than complain, he embraced the challenge, eager to pitch his way back to pinstriped superstardom.
Fifteen minutes with John Smoltz may not have transformed him. But it did help.
"If I don't take from what that guy told me, I probably won't listen to anybody," Chamberlain said. "For a man to take that time to try to help me and try to make me better as an individual was pretty cool for me."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.