ATLANTA (AP) -- John Smoltz remembers the first K.
Darryl Strawberry, whiffing on a high fastball.
"Like it was yesterday," Smoltz said. "I got him to swing through it. I only had two that day. I struck him out and the next guy. I went back-to-back, and that was the only ones I had all day."
He's had plenty of strikeouts since that day in 1988. Smoltz is just four from becoming the 16th pitcher in major league history to reach 3,000, a milestone that looks well within reach for the Atlanta Braves right-hander when he goes to the mound against Washington on Tuesday night.
In his last start, Smoltz fanned 10 in five innings at Florida, the 44th time he's had double-figure Ks. Now, he's on the verge of needing fewer innings than all but five pitchers -- Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens -- to join the 3,000 club.
"That's a pretty elite group," Smoltz said, standing just outside the Braves clubhouse before Monday's game against the Nationals. "The thing that means the most to me is it would be here in Atlanta. Nobody else would get to enjoy it as much as the Atlanta fans."
Smoltz already is the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves and has more postseason wins (15) than anyone else. Three thousands strikeouts would further bolster the 40-year-old's Hall of Fame prospects.
"I never tried to be a strikeout pitcher," he said. "It just happened to be that when I needed strikeouts the most, I was able to get them."
Smoltz makes it sound much easier than it is -- especially in light of myriad health problems (he's had four elbow operations, including a ligament-replacement procedure that cost him an entire season) and spending three full seasons as a closer, rarely working more than one inning at a time.
Even now, Smoltz is pitching with an annoying pain in the back part of his right shoulder that forced him to start the season on the disabled list.
"He just does the best he can with it," manager Bobby Cox said. "I know I couldn't pitch with the way my neck is. He's a lot tougher than I am."
Since coming back, Smoltz looks better than ever. He won his first three starts, allowing just one run in 16 innings with 21 strikeouts. For his career, he has 2,996 Ks in 3,383 innings, an average of just under eight per nine innings.
The only thing missing is another World Series ring to go with that one from 1995.
"He's got every record, everything you could possibly want," catcher Brian McCann said. "He's more focused on another World Series than his own goals."
Who was the toughest hitter for Smoltz to strike out?
"Tony Gwynn," the pitcher replied without hesitating. "I got him once. He saw the plate better than everybody. Even when he got deep in the count, he was comfortable. I just never could get him."
And the easiest?
"I wouldn't say easy, but the one I struck out the most just because he happened to have the most appearances was (Craig) Biggio," said Smoltz, who struck out just-retired Houston star 26 times. "Our battles went back and forth. One at-bat I would get him, then he would get me."
McCann notices a change in Smoltz when someone gets into scoring position.
"He turns it up a notch," the catcher said. "His adrenaline kicks in. His will to not let that guy score kicks in. He's been doing it for a long time."
Smoltz actually started out in the Detroit organization, but the Braves got him from the Tigers in a trade for Doyle Alexander in August 1987.
Cox, who was then the Braves general manager and made the deal, knew right away that he was getting someone special.
"You could tell. Just his stuff and his makeup," Cox said. "His delivery was excellent, even as a kid, just excellent. He was so smooth."
Alexander paid immediate dividends for his new team, going 9-0 down the stretch to help Detroit win the AL East. But he lasted only two more seasons, his exit coinciding with Smoltz breaking into a young Atlanta rotation that also included Tom Glavine.
Greg Maddux eventually joined them, giving the Braves an unmatched trio that played a huge role in the team's unprecedented streak of 14 straight division titles. All three have won Cy Young Awards, and it's likely that all three will be together again some day -- in Cooperstown.
Maddux is already in the 3,000-strikeout club, but both he and Glavine are known more for pinpoint location than overpowering stuff. Smoltz is the classic strikeout pitcher, with a fastball in the 90s and a late-breaking slider that is virtually unhittable when he's on top of his game.
But the injuries prevented him from putting up even better numbers, and that stint in the bullpen probably cost him about 400 strikeouts.
"I say this ad nauseam, but the things it took in the course of my career over 21 years, if I put them in a book, it would not be believed," he said.
With that in mind, Smoltz will savor No. 3,000.
"It is a big number," he said. "I'm not going to down play that."