Start or relief, Smoltz just wants the ball -

Start or relief, Smoltz just wants the ball

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- John Smoltz is happy to be pitching, period. Whatever the St. Louis Cardinals want the 42-year-old right-hander to do in the postseason is fine with him.

Smoltz is 1-1 with a 3.21 ERA in a late-season rebirth heading into his sixth start on Wednesday in Houston. He's coming off a strong outing against the Cubs in which he gave up two first-inning runs and none the last five after missing a turn due to shoulder inflammation.

His success in the rotation could point to a starting role for a team closing in on an NL Central title. But he just as easily end up as a setup man for closer Ryan Franklin.

"We're always evaluating and we'll see where it goes," manager Tony La Russa said.

The Cardinals are keeping their options open, waiting to see if Kyle Lohse can shake off struggles from a forearm injury that's affected his delivery for several months. Lohse, a 15-game winner last year, worked six solid innings on Monday at Houston for only his sixth victory of the season and first on the road.

Waiting is OK with Smoltz, who's appreciative of the chance the Cardinals gave him.

He said that he was the guy "sitting home and playing golf" after flaming out with the Red Sox earlier in the season. Smoltz promises patience, as long as he gets the ball, and knows the Cardinals understand what he can do.

"I don't feel like I'm on any audition," Smoltz said. "What they got me here to do is to pitch and pitch in big games. Whatever role that is, it's irrelevant at this point."

The Cardinals took a chance on Smoltz in mid-August, after he cleared waivers following an abysmal stint in Boston, where he went 2-5 with an 8.33 ERA in eight starts. He holds the record for postseason wins, going 15-4 with four saves and a 2.65 ERA, and adds vital experience beyond St. Louis' big three of Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro.

Smoltz could just as easily serve as a valuable arm late in the game given his unique background as a former closer who totaled 144 saves from 2002-04 with the Braves.

"His attitude echoes ours and that is he's got experience doing both, and he's willing to do whatever gives us our best chance to win," La Russa said. "Right now it's important for him to take innings and get his delivery going and have a feel for his pitches.

"So the more he's out there, the better."

Mark DeRosa, a teammate of Smoltz' in Atlanta from 2001-04, said the right-hander has the same fire to compete even though he's not quite the same pitcher, and has developed a split-finger fastball and a backdoor slider to keep hitters guessing.

"And he still has the ability to touch 92 or 93 mph, so you've got to respect his fastball," DeRosa said. "He's got the heart of a lion. He wants to be in big games, he wants the ball in his hand."

Smoltz insists he's never made any demands of the Cardinals, and doesn't plan to start now.

"I've got no plans right now but Wednesday in Houston and keep improving and keep throwing," Smoltz said. "I don't feel like I'm on any audition. I honestly can tell you there's not one part of me that goes out to start the game to change anybody's mind."

He also knows the excitement can easily wane if his performances fall off the rest of the regular season, and mentioned that skeptics are waiting for the "bottom to drop out."

"I'm a start away from changing you guys' opinions," Smoltz said. "That's the way it goes. So I'm going to keep a level head about it."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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