Notes: Smoltz toys with LaRoche
Ace delivers promised first-pitch knuckler to ex-teammate
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Adam LaRoche remembered what John Smoltz did last year when he had the opportunity to face Andruw Jones in an exhibition game before the World Baseball Classic. Thus he wasn't the least bit surprised to see Smoltz have some fun with him Friday afternoon at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex.
Given his first opportunity to face his former Braves teammate, LaRoche knew to expect the first-pitch knuckleball that Smoltz had promised to deliver during a Thursday night phone conversation. He also wasn't shocked to see the veteran hurler playfully attempt to hit him while requesting a new baseball from plate umpire Casey Moser.
"I told him I'd throw him a first-pitch knuckleball and then I'd challenge him," Smoltz said. "I lied."
Instead of challenging him with a fastball, Smoltz delivered a changeup that LaRoche pounded into the ground for the first out of the second inning of Friday's game between the Braves and Pirates. Minutes later, Atlanta's veteran hurler completed his successful Grapefruit League debut having registered three strikeouts in two scoreless innings.
"I wish there were more games like this during the season, where you could go and have a lot more fun and still get guys out," Smoltz said. "It's these moments down here that I'm really going to enjoy."
As he enters what will be the first season he's pitched as a 40-year old, Smoltz has vowed to take advantage of these opportunities to have fun with friends like LaRoche. In addition, he'll spend the next few weeks working on the development of the changeup that he hopes will make his still lively fastball that much more effective.
"I've got to work that pitch to death and find a way to have it come with me when we go north," said Smoltz, who struggled in his attempts to get a feel for the changeup last year.
While allowing just a two-out second-inning triple and throwing 19 of his 23 pitches for strikes, Smoltz felt much more comfortable than he has during any of his previous spring debuts.
"This is the best first game, mechanically, I've ever been," Smoltz said.
Wick's debut: Closer Bob Wickman's preseason preparations are a little different than the ones utilized by most pitchers. He never throws off a mound until camp begins and often he doesn't pitch in Grapefruit League games until the final weeks of the exhibition season.
Two days ago, he decided to slightly alter his preparations by pitching in Friday's game. After surrendering the Pirates two infield singles in a scoreless inning, he proclaimed his satisfaction came from the fact that unlike many other pitchers, he truly does concern himself with the results he produces in the exhibition season.
"Luckily the outcome was good," Wickman said. "You don't ever want to give up a run. I don't play that [stuff] where people say it's just Spring Training or anything like that. I'm working on stuff right out of the shoot."
Wickman, who showed the Pirates a number of curveballs, has been using his pre-camp approach for about eight years. The 38-year-old right-hander believes throwing on flat ground prevents the added wear and tear his arm might incur while throwing off the mound.
"I don't know if it helps me," Wickman said. "But it sure saves my arm for the long road ahead."
LaRoche feeling comfortable: Two weeks ago, when he joined Smoltz and Jeff Francoeur for a round of golf with Tiger Woods, LaRoche was pleased to get an opportunity to spend some time with some of his former teammates.
But as he prepares for his first season with the Pirates, LaRoche is feeling very comfortable. He appreciates the professionalism Braves general manager John Schuerholz displayed when he informed him of the trade and has quickly gained and appreciation for Pirates manager Jim Tracy.
"I love playing for Jim Tracy," LaRoche said. "He's similar to [Braves manager] Bobby [Cox] in a lot of ways."
LaRoche provided his former teammates with a few laughs when he arrived for Friday's game and found that his game jersey hadn't been packed. He was forced to use a backup jersey with the No. 96 on the back.
Lefties struggle: After watching left-handed relievers Mike Gonzalez and Macay McBride endure some struggles on Friday, Cox wasn't the least bit concerned.
McBride, who allowed four hits and two earned runs in two innings, was certainly aided by his defense. Andruw Jones' perfect throw to the plate prevented a run in the third inning and Tony Pena snagged a line drive to begin a double play to end the fourth inning.
As for Gonzalez, who was acquired in the trade that sent LaRoche to Pittsburgh, he was victimized by a two-run fifth inning homer by the imposing Brad Eldred. Still, Cox believed his new left-handed reliever was sharp, considering he missed all of September because of a sore elbow.
Braves bits: Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward threw Friday's ceremonial first pitch to Chipper Jones, who is a big fan of Ward's Pittsburgh Steelers. ... Utility infielder Willy Aybar is expected to finally report to camp on Saturday. ... The cover of this year's Braves media guide has a smiling Francoeur sharing a celebratory handshake with Brian McCann.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.