Harris looks to spoil Smoltz's debut

Harris looks to spoil Smoltz's debut

WASHINGTON -- The way Nationals outfielder Willie Harris sees it, John Smoltz still owes him a basketball game.

A Michigan native, Smoltz dubbed himself the "White Joe Dumars" to Harris when the two were teammates with the Braves in 2007. So Harris and his friends challenged Smoltz and a couple buddies to a basketball game in Harris' hometown of Cairo, Ga., which is about 250 miles south of Atlanta.

"But he didn't show up -- which tells me he's scared," Harris said.

Harris won't get his hoops match this week, but he will get the chance to hit against Smoltz, who, after 20 seasons with the Braves, will make his debut with the Red Sox on Thursday at Nationals Park.

Coming off a surgery to repair a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder, Smoltz is remarkably confident that he can return to his old form -- which means an ERA less than 3.50 and a win percentage greater than .600, true Hall of Fame numbers.

Albeit in a small sample size, Harris has had great success against the man whose bust will be in Cooperstown five years following retirement. The Nationals' utility man is 4-for-6 with a double and a triple against Smoltz.

"He's a lot of fun to be with and he's been able to do things for different teams that is valuable," Smoltz said of Harris. "I don't enjoy pitching against him."

That's because Smoltz gave up one run in each of his two starts against the Nationals last season, and both runs were a result of Harris RBIs

"My smack talk was real quiet when I saw him [Tuesday]," said Smoltz.

When Harris was on the bench in Atlanta, he was consistently in Smoltz's ear, talking baseball and picking the veteran's brain for advice.

"I asked him what pitchers are thinking in certain situations and what they're trying to do to hitters in certain situations, and he helped me out a lot," Harris said.

Despite his usual triumphs over Smoltz as opponents, Harris finds battling the 42-year-old pitcher anything but simple.

"I remember facing him last year," Harris recalled. "I worked the count 3-2, and me being a small guy, I'm 110 percent sure he's going to throw me a fastball. Nope. Slider. He never gives in. You're never really ahead in the count, even if you're 2-0 or 3-1. He makes up pitches. I saw him throw a knuckleball once to [Greg] Maddux."

"It's not a fun at-bat by any means," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman echoed.

Even in his first start back from rehab, Smoltz plans on using his complete arsenal: fastball, split-finger, changeup, curveball, slider.

"Whatever pitch I think is best for the moment, I will throw it," said Smoltz.

Except for that knuckleball.

"There's no chance for the knuckleball," Smoltz said. "I have no thumbnail anymore."

After a long recovery process, Smoltz is thrilled that the rehabbing is finally over and that he can pitch in a big league game for the first time since June 2, 2008.

But what about that basketball game against Harris?

Debunking the notion that he was, indeed, too scared, Smoltz assured: "I promise you, it doesn't matter how old I get, [we'll play]. There's a lot of miles to travel between the two of our homes back in Georgia, but he'll get it and he'll want a rematch."

Smoltz is close friends with Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, from when Rivers played for the Atlanta Hawks while Smoltz was on the Braves in the 1990s.

But Harris has never seen Smoltz in action.

"The way he talks, he was going to kill us, but the way I talk, we were going to kill them," Harris said.

Fans will just have to settle for their clash on the diamond Thursday.

Pitching matchup
WSH: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (2-3, 5.03 ERA)
Zimmermann's high pitch count of 106 led to an exit after 5 2/3 innings against Toronto on Friday. But Zimmermann was solid in that time, giving up five hits and one run in a no-decision. Being a strikeout pitcher (the right-hander leads NL rookies with 63 this season), he is prone to high pitch counts. Zimmermann has pitched more than six innings just once in 11 starts. After a rough May, he is sporting a 2.16 ERA in three June starts.

BOS: RHP John Smoltz (3-2, 2.57 ERA in 2008)
Smoltz makes his long-awaited Red Sox debut after spending the first 20 seasons of his Major League career in Atlanta. The 42-year-old right-hander underwent a deliberate rehabilitation program with Boston following shoulder surgery last June. A 210-game winner and likely future Hall of Famer, Smoltz is 21-12 lifetime with a 2.55 ERA in 68 appearances against the Montreal/Washington franchise.

Tidbits
While Tuesday night's game was billed as a record sellout at Nationals Park, the paid attendance for Wednesday's game (41,530) exceeded it by 17 guests, marking a new record for the second-year ballpark. ... The Nationals have been swept a league-high seven times this season. ... In 14 games in June, catcher Josh Bard is hitting .342.

Tickets
 Buy tickets now to catch the game in person.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• MASN HD

On radio
• WFED 1500, SBN 1390 (Español), ESPN 730 (Sp.)

Up next
• Friday: Nationals (Ross Detwiler, 0-3, 4.76) at Orioles (Brad Bergesen, 4-2, 3.94), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Saturday: Nationals (Shairon Martis, 5-2, 5.13) at Orioles (Jeremy Guthrie, 5-7, 5.09), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Sunday: Nationals (John Lannan, 4-5, 3.44) at Orioles (TBD), 1:35 p.m. ET

Mark Selig is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.