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The Week Ahead: Smoltz returns, a day early

John Smoltz makes his anticipated return to the mound on Thursday. It is also his anticipated debut for the Boston Red Sox, who signed him away from Atlanta in the offseason after the Braves showed somewhat tepid interest in keeping their aging star.

There is one problem with Smoltz's return, it would have been a lot more fun if it had come a day or two later.

On Thursday, Smoltz will take the mound in Washington against baseball's worst team – the Washington Nationals. On Friday, Boston begins a three-game series at Turner Field against the Atlanta Braves.

Clearly the Red Sox are easing the veteran right-hander back into things, and Smoltz himself says that's fine with him.

"I'm not afraid of any challenge or anything that comes about. It's just, I've got to be realistic to see that this scenario would have been much more than just a regular first-game start."

Smoltz already paid respects to his former teammates when the Braves were in Boston this past week, but it still would've been fun to have them face off against each other. Now the only way that happens this year is if both teams reach the World Series – unlikely to say the least.

Meanwhile, Boston fans, already undoubtedly pleased with Dice-K's trip to the disabled list, can get excited about adding another strong, veteran pitcher to the rotation. A guy who has made it a habit to be dominant on the mound, even when injured.

"Even when he's not healthy, his numbers don't fluctuate," marveled Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. "He's had a remarkable career."

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH

  • Cardinals at Mets, June 22-25: This four-game set could go a long way toward determining whether the Mets can hang with the contenders for the rest of the season.
  • Phillies at Rays, June 23-25: A rematch of last October's World Series. Only this time, Pat Burrell will be wearing the home whites at Tropicana Field.
  • Cubs at White Sox, June 26-28: The Cubs enter the week on a four-game winning streak and have climbed within 2 ½ games of the NL Central lead. The White Sox have won two straight and have climbed within throwing distance of .500.
  • Red Sox at Braves, June 26-28: Smoltz is back in the house, though he won't pitch for the Red Sox in Atlanta. Unless … anyone want some rain on Thursday?
  • Yankees at Mets, June 26-28: The Subway Series, Part Deux. The Yankees took two of three at Yankee Stadium, but now we're travelling to Queens. Will it make a difference? Will A-Rod take a break?

    ON THE TUBE

    Monday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Cardinals at Mets (ESPN2)
    Wednesday, 7:10 p.m.: Yankees at Braves (ESPN2)
    *Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Cubs at White Sox (FOX)
    *Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Red Sox at Braves (FOX)
    *Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Angels at Diamondbacks (FOX)
    Sunday, 1:30 p.m.: Red Sox at Braves (TBS)
    Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Yankees at Mets (ESPN)

    *Check local listings