Braves sensing momentum shift
Atlanta bullpen supports Smoltz in win over St. Louis
ATLANTA -- When the Braves lost their 12-inning heartbreaker at Yankee Stadium last week, John Smoltz declared he and his teammates would need to win eight of the final 10 games before the All-Star break to keep them in postseason contention.
To reach this goal, the Braves still have some work to do during the remainder of this 10-game homestand that leads into the break. But if this weekend's series victory over the Orioles didn't provide enough indication, Monday night's seventh inning against the Cardinals certainly showed things are quickly changing for the better in Atlanta.
As Chad Paronto entered Monday's seventh inning, the stadium speakers were blaring Aerosmith's "Same Old Song and Dance." But when the hefty right-hander ended the inning by getting the mighty Albert Pujols to ground into a double play, it was evident the bullpen had provided Smoltz a much different song and dance.
Three homers in a rain-delayed, five-run third inning provided Smoltz his early support in the 6-3 win over the Cardinals. But it wasn't until the bullpen provided him some rare and much-welcomed support that he was able to celebrate his first victory in eight starts.
"It's just a nice win at an opportunistic time," Smoltz said after the Braves recorded a second consecutive victory for the first time since completing a three-game sweep of the Cubs on May 28. "The bullpen did an outstanding job."
It's become evident that the revitalized bullpen has been a major reason the Braves have won six of their past 10 games and three of four since Smoltz issued his challenge. During the past 10 games, the much-maligned relief corps has posted a 1.59 ERA (six earned runs in 34 innings).
This is the same bullpen that posted a 7.29 ERA while the Braves lost 20 of 23 games. It's also the group that had blown six leads Smoltz had exited with earlier this year. But the relievers currently are providing much different results for the Braves, who will welcome the Reds --- the team they trail by eight games in the Wild Card standings -- to Atlanta for a four-game series this weekend.
"We're definitely playing a lot better ball than we were two weeks ago," said Jeff Francoeur, who remained in the game after getting hit on the left side of his helmet by an Anthony Reyes fastball in the second inning. "It would be nice for all of us to build some momentum heading into the break."
Marcus Giles and Edgar Renteria began the lengthy third inning with solo homers off Reyes, the St. Louis starter. After a 55-minute rain delay, Brian McCann began his two-hit night with a two-run shot off the Cardinals' young right-hander, who had allowed just two home runs in the previous 27 innings he'd completed this year.
"We needed that big inning," said McCann, who on Sunday was selected to play in his first All-Star Game. "We haven't been getting it in the past couple of weeks. Timely hits are what win ballgames, and tonight we got that."
While the Atlanta offense geared up to provide more damage against Reyes during the rain delay, Smoltz spent it throwing about three simulated innings in the clubhouse's batting cage. When he returned, he tossed three scoreless innings and retired the final six batters he faced in style.
"It's tough to score on a guy like that, especially a guy like [Smoltz]," Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds said. "It's not just a guy who's been around the league; it's one of the best pitchers of our era."
Smoltz, who allowed three earned runs and seven hits in six innings, saw the first two Cardinals hitters of the fifth inning reach safely. But he escaped unharmed after retiring Pujols, who'd homered off him in the third inning, Scott Rolen and Edmonds in order.
Using some of the same mentality he utilized as a closer, Smoltz ended his evening by striking out all three batters he faced in the sixth inning. Because of the rain delay, he mentally felt like he'd tossed nine innings.
"No matter how long I've been in the game, it's great to get a win," said Smoltz, whose previous win had come on May 22, when he emerged victorious despite Jake Peavy's 16-strikeout performance. "But more importantly it's great for the team to get a win."
Things got dicey in the seventh inning when Paronto allowed a one-out double that was followed with a single. But with runners at the corners and the heart of the strong Cardinals lineup coming up, the right-handed sinkerballer got Pujols to hit a grounder to third baseman Wilson Betemit, who turned the game-saving double play.
"We're at a point now where we've got to win," Paronto said. "It was just a big situation, and it was exciting."
Ryan Langerhans provided more cushion when he homered for the second straight day in the bottom of the eighth. But it proved to be unnecessary support for Ken Ray and Jorge Sosa, who each tossed a perfect inning to end the game.
It was Ray and Sosa who surrendered the homers that ruined Smoltz's strong seven-inning effort at Yankee Stadium last week. Thus, this was just another example that things are quickly changing for the better for the justifiably optimistic Braves.
"To me, everybody came up big tonight in one way or another," Francoeur said. "That's when it's fun -- when the whole team comes up big."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.