WASHINGTON -- When John Smoltz decided to end his two-decade association with the Atlanta Braves and sign with the Boston Red Sox, he did so with the knowledge he could be a luxury item on what he already figured would be a championship-caliber team.

As it turns out, the circumstances under which Smoltz makes his debut for his new team completely backs up that line of thinking.

Though Smoltz is just starting his season, Boston is well into its campaign. With 11 wins in their past 14 games, the Red Sox hold a five-game lead over the Yankees in the American League East.

Now, the right-hander with Hall of Fame credentials has a chance to lift his new team to a three-game sweep over the Washington Nationals.

Smoltz underwent right shoulder surgery last June 10, while still with the Braves. Thursday's start marks the beginning of his latest comeback, and also a new chapter in his career.

"When I have a baseball in my hand, I feel like I can make a pitch and do the things I have to do to hopefully take the sting out of the bat, and if that's the case, we'll progress and keep getting better every time out," said Smoltz. "[Thursday] is just one rung on the ladder to try to climb as far as I can to see how good I can be, and really, at the end of the day, be in a position to pitch in the playoffs."

The Red Sox have worked closely with Smoltz since signing him in January to make sure that when he did come back, the righty would be ready to thrive out of the gate.

All parties involved feel that the time is now.

"He's worked really hard to come back from a pretty significant surgery," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He's done everything we asked, maybe more. He's gone through a lot to put himself in a position to help us win a lot of games. He wanted to pitch into the playoffs. He's tried to put himself in a position where that will happen, and we're excited."

Though Smoltz's regular-season credentials (210-147, 3.26 ERA, 154 saves, 3,011 strikeouts) are gaudy enough, he has even taken it to another level in the postseason. Smoltz has 15 wins in postseason play, the most in Major League history.

But before the October carrot comes, Smoltz is ready to tackle the grind of the regular season.

"The biggest thing is I have enough pitches to get hitters out," said Smoltz. "And if the stuff that everyone is talking about might be different, so be it. But I think the ability to pitch and get guys out will be the same."

Though Smoltz has a lot of ambition for a 42-year-old pitcher, those who have played with him think he is entirely realistic.

"Above all else, he's one of the best athletes I've ever seen and he's overcome odds before," said Astros left-hander Mike Hampton, a former teammate of Smoltz's. "He's never had shoulder problems before. It's all been elbow and things like that. And shoulders tend to be a little tougher to come back from, but he's still Smoltzie. He's a winner. He'll find a way to win."

Pitching matchup
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.

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.

Tidbits
The Red Sox have won 12 of their past 15 Interleague series. ... Boston has won eight of its past nine games on the road. ... David Ortiz has 1,002 RBIs in his career, and 764 for the Red Sox, placing him ninth on the team's all-time list.

Tickets
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On the Internet
 MLB.TV
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On television
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On radio
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Up next
• Friday: Red Sox (Josh Beckett, 8-3, 3.74) at Braves (Jair Jurrjens, 5-5, 2.89), 7:30 p.m. ET
• Saturday: Red Sox (Tim Wakefield, 9-3, 4.47) at Braves (Javier Vazquez, 5-6, 3.18), 4:00 p.m. ET
• Sunday: Red Sox (Brad Penny, 6-2, 4.93) at Braves (Tommy Hanson, 3-0, 3.13), 1:30 p.m. ET