It's been better than almost anybody figured -- and after nearly
four months, Smoltz's teammates and coaches say the 38-year-old
starter-turned-closer-turned-starter is stronger, more durable and
more effective than ever.
Smoltz pitched eight smooth innings for his seventh straight
win, and rookie Jeff Francoeur went 3-for-3 with a two-run homer in
the Braves' 4-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday.
Smoltz (11-5) allowed six hits and struck out seven, easily
silencing the Giants' meek bats. He didn't walk a batter and
permitted just two runners to reach second base in his first
victory over San Francisco since April 26, 1996, at Candlestick
He even added a run-scoring double in the seventh to pad the
lead. Smoltz was in total control with four superb pitches -- and
his teammates, who might have been disheartened after a 5-4 loss
Tuesday night in which they blew a late two-run loss, were carried
to another win.
"When I made this move back (to the rotation), this was the
kind of guy I thought I could be," Smoltz said. "When we lost a
big game, I could come out and get a win. That game last night was
a tough loss. You don't want to let that linger."
Despite a hamstring injury that requires extensive treatment
between starts, Smoltz is unbeaten with a 1.86 ERA and 47
strikeouts in eight starts since June 6.
The five-time All-Star won 144 games as a starter in Atlanta
before saving 154 games as a dominant closer from 2001-04.
"My focus this time around is so much better, because I'm so
patient with myself," Smoltz said. "I was as determined and
focused today as I've been in a long time. It's been a long road
trip for me ... and I'm looking forward to a lot of rest."
Alex Sanchez's leadoff double and Pedro Feliz's fourth-inning
homer were San Francisco's only extra-base hits off Smoltz. He also
improved to 11-14 in his career against the Giants, one of the few
clubs with consistent success against him.
"He threw a lot of strikes and just pretty much dominated,"
manager Bobby Cox said. "His fastball is about the same as before,
his breaking stuff is the same, and he's added a split."
The St. Louis Cardinals are the only other NL team with a
winning record against Smoltz over his career.
"There are so many things he can do," San Francisco manager
Felipe Alou said of Smoltz. "I've seen Smoltz throw harder, but
not ever as dominating with four pitches. When he was a closer, he
was throwing fastballs and sliders. Now he's pitching more and
saving his energy for the late innings."
Chris Reitsma pitched the ninth for his 10th save in 14 chances.
Kelly Johnson doubled and scored on Adam Shabala's two-base
error for the Braves, who took two of three from the Giants to keep
pressure on Washington atop the NL East. Atlanta has won the last
13 division titles.
Francoeur, who homered in his major league debut less than two
weeks ago, had the first three-hit game of his career. After Julio
Franco's two-out double in the second inning, Francoeur homered on
a poor changeup from Noah Lowry (6-10).
"I'm not trying to think too much," Francoeur said. "I'm just
trying to have as much fun as I can."
Francoeur added two singles and scored on Smoltz's double in the
seventh -- just the second extra-base hit and RBI of the season for
Fellow rookies Johnson and Brian McCann, who caught all three of
Smoltz's complete games earlier this season, also made
contributions to Atlanta's fourth win in seven games on a tough
10-game road swing spanning the All-Star break.
Feliz hit his 14th homer for the Giants, who couldn't mount any
significant rallies against Smoltz. Lowry was solid, allowing six
hits and getting seven strikeouts in seven innings, but his
teammates were no help.
"Any time you're facing a guy like Smoltz, you've got to be on
top of your game, and I made a few mistakes," Lowry said. "Two or
three pitches cost us."
The Giants rested outfielder Moises Alou and catcher Mike
Matheny, giving the veterans two days off before Friday's game
Atlanta SS Rafael Furcal's 11-game hitting streak ended.
... All three games of the series were sellouts for fans eager to
see the NL's two winningest teams since 2000. ... The Braves have
an off-day before finishing the trip with a three-game series at
Arizona. Reliever Jim Brower, released by the Giants last month,
plans to spend the day packing up his apartment across the street
from SBC Park. ... Smoltz (2,508) passed Christy Mathewson (2,502)
for 26th place on baseball's career strikeouts list.