BOSTON - A strong rotation and even better bullpen have led the Red Sox to the top of the AL East.
Now John Smoltz, the only pitcher in major league history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves, is set to join them.
His return next week may give a boost to the pitching staff and a dilemma to manager Terry Francona. But if Boston must use six starters for a couple of turns through the rotation, he's not complaining.
'It certainly could happen,' Francona said Tuesday after confirming that Smoltz would make his first start in more than a year on June 25 at the Washington Nationals. 'That wouldn't be the worst thing for a short period of time.'
Smoltz hasn't pitched in the majors since June 2, 2008, when he allowed two runs in one inning as Atlanta's closer. Eight days later, he had surgery to repair labrum damage in his right shoulder, ending his season with a 3-2 record and just six appearances.
Tonight, he's scheduled to make his sixth rehab start, pitching at Triple-A Pawtucket against Charlotte, an outing changed from Thursday because of threatening weather. Then the 42-year-old right-hander can focus on his return to the majors.
'I'm not too excited yet because I want to get through (today's start),' Smoltz said. 'Then I'll start for the first time in a year (to) look at film. I've been wanting to look at film for a while.'
He'll study Washington's hitters and throw on the side before his start in Daisuke Matsuzaka's spot in the rotation. Matsuzaka, who has struggled, could pitch the following night at Atlanta.
Francona said Smoltz, who was critical of the way the Braves treated him after 20 seasons, doesn't need any more excitement by facing them.
'There's not disappointment,' Smoltz said. 'I couldn't be disappointed about anything at this point, even if somebody told me I had to wait another month. Again, I've worked really hard to get to this point of either anticipating another start and regardless of who I pitch against and whatever the outcome is, it's all part of the process.'
He feels healthy and said endurance won't be a problem. He even might have joined the Red Sox earlier had the starters struggled.
But Josh Beckett was 5-0 in seven starts before a bad outing Sunday, Jon Lester has struck out 34 and allowed three runs and seven hits in winning his past three starts, and Brad Penny is coming off a six-inning scoreless stint. Tim Wakefield, who took an 8-3 record into Tuesday night's start against Florida, leads the staff in wins.
Matsuzaka, 1-4 with a 7.55 ERA, has faltered and the Red Sox don't seem ready to yank him from the rotation.
'I look at it as a tremendous luxury,' Smoltz said. 'I signed a long time ago with the opportunity of me being a bonus. That's the way I look at it, as a bonus.'
He signed as a free agent on Jan. 13 and has been brought along gradually. The Red Sox aimed for a midseason return that would leave him fresh for the last month of the season and, they hope, a long postseason run.
'Once he starts back, there's no turning back,' Francona said. 'Hopefully, he pitches till deep in October.'
Smoltz leads all pitchers in the postseason with 15 wins and 194 strikeouts. He appeared in the playoffs in 13 years and has a 15-4 record and 2.65 ERA in 40 outings.
'You can't see it right now because I've still been rehabbing and everyone's anticipating my first start,' he said, 'but it'll pay off down the stretch, I can promise, if I continue to do the things I think I can do.'