Braves veterans reign in blowout win
Smoltz provides 10-strikeout effort; Jones mashes two jacks
MIAMI -- It will still be remembered as a very forgettable road trip. But the Braves are at least hoping the conclusion proves to be the beginning of their first extended hot streak of this early season.
Seemingly releasing all of the frustrations they've incurred over the past two weeks, the Braves bid adieu to this physically taxing and mentally exhausting road trip with a convincing 8-0 win over the Marlins on Thursday night at Dolphin Stadium.
Factually, it was one of only three wins recorded during this nine-game road trip. But from a mental perspective, this might have been the lift the Braves needed -- and it shouldn't come as a surprise that veteran leaders Chipper Jones and John Smoltz were there to serve as the catalysts.
"Great pitching tonight and a whole lot of hitting," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "So it was a great night for the Bravos. It wasn't a great trip. But the win makes it sweeter going home, that's for sure. Maybe we can put something together here and take off a little bit."
When Cox called one of his rare pregame meetings before Thursday's series finale, he wanted to put an end to a three-game losing streak and make sure his young players knew there was plenty of season left. Over the course of the next few hours, Jones enjoyed a four-hit performance that included two homers and Smoltz willed himself to a 10-strikeout performance that encompassed five scoreless innings.
"The manager doesn't speak often, and when he does, he seems to know what to say," said Smoltz, who has won each of his first three starts and surrendered just one run in 16 innings.
Though he's battled tightness between his neck and shoulder over the course of the last month, Smoltz has been credited with half of the six wins the Braves have in their first 15 games this year. This was his 44th career multi-strikeout performance and one that moved him within four of becoming the 16th pitcher in Major League history to ever register 3,000 career strikeouts.
"You can't pitch any better than that," Cox said. "Ten strikeouts in five innings is phenomenal."
Smoltz began his evening with a perfect first inning that included three strikeouts and ended it by striking out the final two batters he faced in the fifth inning. With his patented slider dancing, he had the stuff to contend for a career-best night. But with his shoulder starting to provide problems in the third inning, it was evident his effort would be abbreviated.
"I'm very frustrated that I couldn't have done more tonight, because that's the kind of game you want to be in as a pitcher," Smoltz said. "But the way it worked today was the best scenario."
Smoltz was afforded some relaxation courtesy of Jones' first four-hit performance since Aug. 14, 1996. The Braves veteran third baseman raised his National League-best batting average to .443 and came within a triple of the cycle. He began his night with a first-inning RBI double and then enhanced it with solo homers in the third and fifth innings.
"I have never seen Chipper start a season the way that he's starting," Smoltz said. "He's certainly carrying us. We really could have nine or 10 wins. But without him, we might not have six. He's carrying us and he's hot. You know everybody else around him will get hot. And you know when that happens, we'll be a very, very difficult team to pitch to."
Jones' fifth-inning homer was followed by shots by Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann. The previous time the Braves hit back-to-back-to-back homers was when Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa and Gary Sheffield combined to do so against the Reds on May 28, 2003.
"Every win for us is big right now," Jones said. "We've been a team that's had a lot of tough breaks and had to persevere through the first few weeks of the season. It's just nice to come out and get a solidly pitched game and see the offense break loose in a big way."
As the Braves traveled back to Atlanta late Thursday night, they had a rare opportunity for positive reflection. During the trip, they suffered four one-run losses and saw their top two relievers go to the disabled list. The scars of this nine-game trip are still evident.
But was this impressive conclusion, the Band-Aid the Braves needed to stop their recent bleeding?
"It would certainly have to be a big Band-Aid," Smoltz said. "Certainly, going home, it feels better. It always feels better to win."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.