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Smoltz on pace for record

By Paul Newberry

ATLANTA? The AC/DC song "Thunderstruck" booms from the speakers, a crescendo of wailing guitars. The fans rise from their seats as the bullpen door swings open. Right on cue, John Smoltz steps onto the field like a boxer heading to the ring.

For a guy who wasn't all that keen on the idea, Smoltz sure has this closer thing down pat.

"I never want them to feel like they've got any chance," he said. "Don't show any cracks."

Smoltz was a latecomer to the job of finishing games instead of starting them, but he quickly became the most dominating closer around. He already has 12 saves in 13 chances for the first-place Atlanta Braves, on pace for 63 by season's end.

That would be a major league record. Smoltz already holds the NL mark, saving 55 games a year ago, his first full season as a closer.

"He's probably throwing three or four miles an hour harder out of the bullpen than he did as a starter," Houston Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell said. "He's throwing strikes, and you've got to be ready to hit, and yet you're trying to hit some of the best stuff that's featured out there."

Smoltz is the closest thing to a sure bet in a job filled with all sorts of peril. He throws a fastball near 100 mph, accompanied by a slider and split-finger that linger in the low 90s.

"I'm a guy who's going to come after you right away with three pitches," said Smoltz, who has allowed only two earned runs in 16 2-3 innings for a 1.08 ERA. "And I don't think you can tell which three I'm going to throw."

Carrying over from last season, the 35-year-old right-hander had converted 27 saves in a row until Friday, when the Arizona Diamondbacks finally broke through in the ninth. The Braves still won the game in extra innings.

On Sunday, Smoltz finished off the Diamondbacks with a three-run lead, extending another impressive streak. Atlanta has won the last 64 games in which its closer has appeared.

Smoltz emerges from the bullpen intent on throwing strikes and ending the game as soon as possible. The count is irrelevant. Even when it's 0-2, he's going to challenge the hitter.

Occasionally, that philosophy leads to trouble. But it also keep Smoltz in the closer state of mind.

"The intensity of this role allows for no letdowns," he said. "At least not for me."

A starter most of his 15-year career, Smoltz averaged more than 200 innings a season from 1989-99, winning the NL Cy Young Award in ?96. He also became the winningest postseason pitcher in baseball history, going 14-4 in the playoffs and World Series.