Smoltz leads Atlanta to split with Nats
Johnson contributes four hits; bullpen locks the door
WASHINGTON -- Braves manager Bobby Cox smiled when talking about the key parts of his newly-improved bullpen before Tuesday's game with the Nationals, calling newly acquired Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez plus closer Bob Wickman his "three aces."
The Braves clearly had aces up in the series finale against the Nationals. Gonzalez didn't have to pitch, but Oscar Villarreal got a key strikeout before Soriano threw 1 2/3 perfect innings and Wickman followed by retiring three straight in the ninth for his fourth save as the Braves pulled out a 6-4 victory over the Nationals at RFK Stadium.
Ironically, it first looked like the bullpen wouldn't be needed much. The Braves (9-4) scored three runs in the top of the first, and starter John Smoltz (2-1) breezed into the sixth. The Braves had leads of 3-0, 4-1 and 5-2 before the Nationals (4-10) ended Smoltz's night with two runs in the seventh.
In that seventh inning, the Braves were in trouble after the Nationals sliced the lead to 5-4 and had runners on first and second with none out. But Villarreal struck out Ronnie Belliard before Soriano entered to strike out Ryan Zimmerman and get Dmitri Young on a flyball that Ryan Langerhans tracked down deep in the left-field corner.
Soriano retired the Nationals (4-10) in order in the eighth before Wickman shut the door for good. The three relievers got the final nine Washington hitters in order to preserve the victory.
"The bullpen was excellent," Cox said. "[Soriano] was dynamite, saved the ballgame, actually, and Wick's been perfect from Day 1, so the bullpen was excellent."
Soriano truly had a battle. He needed 22 pitches to get Zimmerman and Young, who repeatedly fouled off pitches, but eventually came up empty.
Smoltz also didn't look like he'd need much help early. In the end, the right-hander gave up four runs on six hits in six-plus innings. But only two of the runs were earned, and a long sixth inning where the Nationals battled and fouled off many pitches stopped Smoltz from going longer.
The right-hander threw 31 of his 102 pitches in that inning, even though the Nationals scored just once.
"I'm disappointed in myself, but we came away with a win," Smoltz said. "Ultimately, I put the bullpen in a tough position I didn't need to, but it was a grind, that sixth inning. Again, all my outings I feel I've never been so much in control. ... Something happens, and it's a nail-biter. [But] the win is the saving grace."
Kelly Johnson's bat also helped the Braves get the victory. Johnson came into the game with just a .150 (6-for-40) batting average, but he went 4-for-5 on Tuesday and sparked a three-run rally in the first with a leadoff single and a stolen base. Johnson also scored two runs.
Johnson had hit the ball hard a number of times early this season, but it constantly flew right at someone.
"It's been one of those stretches where you just need something to fall, and you need some things to kind of go your way," Johnson said. "There were some things that needed to be changed. I've been working hard, and you like to think that when you put the effort in that you're going to get some results, and tonight was one of those nights, finally."
The skipper agreed wholeheartedly.
"He deserves them all, believe me," Cox said. "He's had some tough luck."
The Braves had good luck at the start. That's when Johnson, Edgar Renteria, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones got consecutive singles off Jerome Williams (0-3) to begin the game and give the Braves a 2-0 lead.
Brian McCann then walked to load the bases before Williams got his first out -- but that came on a Jeff Francouer sacrifice fly. The Braves made it 4-0 in the third on a Francouer RBI single.
The Nationals got some help from two Renteria errors at shortstop to cut the lead to 4-2. McCann added an RBI single in the seventh to make it 5-2. But Brian Schneider singled to start the seventh, and Chris Snelling ended Smoltz's night with a triple. Villarreal entered, and a Chipper Jones error at third set things up for a Felipe Lopez RBI single that cut the Atlanta lead to just one run.
Chipper Jones then gave the Braves insurance with a solo homer in the ninth, which made the bullpen's job easier. The bullpen then slammed the door, something that didn't happen as much in 2006 when Atlanta slid to a 79-83 record.
"Fortunately, the bullpen was huge," Smoltz said. "That's the difference between this year's ballclub and last year's ballclub."
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.