WASHINGTON -- After Oscar Villarreal's performance in the Braves' 5-0 win against the Nationals on Thursday, manager Bobby Cox might want to consider having Villarreal follow John Smoltz in both his relief appearances and starts. A night after Smoltz had his personal six-game winning streak snapped, Villarreal picked up the first win of his career as a starter, and had another successful outing following Smoltz. Villarreal had his best outing of the year in relief of Smoltz on June 23, going 4 1/3 scoreless innings against Tampa Bay after Smoltz left the game with an injury in the second inning.
On Thursday, Villarreal again followed Smoltz and this time turned in his best performance of the season. Manager Bobby Cox said before the game that he was hoping to get five innings out of career reliever Villarreal as the Braves went for the series split against Washington. The Atlanta skipper got the exact number of innings he was asking for and Villarreal made his second career start count. "We needed that big-time," Cox said. "Because last night was a bit of a letdown. Oscar perked us right back up." In front of 29,007 at RFK, Villarreal -- making his first start since 2003 -- threw five scoreless innings and gave up just one hit, one walk, struck out four and picked up his ninth win of the season against only one loss. "I thought it was pretty darn impressive," Cox said. "It's sometimes a stretch to ask guy to go five innings, but he did it easily. I'd think he could do the same thing again, maybe one more [inning]." When asked after the game about starting, Villarreal said he was willing to do whatever Cox and the coaching staff asked him to do -- start or relieve -- for the good of the team. "I like both," Villarreal said. "I like to pitch. I like my team to win." A reporter asked Villarreal if he thought he would be back in the starting rotation again, and the right-hander again deferred to the coaching staff. "We'll see what happens," Villarreal said. "Whatever the skipper says." Well, the skipper says be ready in five days. "Yeah, yeah, for a little while longer, you bet," Cox said when asked if Villarreal would start again. "With the way he's throwing, there's no reason not to give it a try." Cox was noncommittal when asked if his newfound starter would be allowed to go deeper into game than the five inning cap he put on Villarreal on Thursday. "Maybe," Cox said. "We'll see. It's not that easy. It's easier to say, 'Yeah, we'll increase it every time.' But yeah, we'd like to." The bulk of the Braves' offensive output came in the fifth against Nats starter Jason Bergmann. Atlanta touched up Bergmann for three runs in the frame on a Marcus Giles two-out, two-run single, followed by shortstop Edgar Renteria breaking out of his 0-for-24 slump with an RBI single to left field, scoring Giles on a close play at the plate and making the score 4-0. "I was safe by a mile," Giles joked after the game. "I'm just kidding ... it was a bang-bang play, tough call for the umpire. The point is he called me safe, so I was safe." Two-out hits and RBIs were key for Atlanta on Thursday as the Braves evened their record at 2-2 on their current seven-game road trip. "Sometimes they're impossible to get," Cox said. "There was a stretch where we were getting them on a regular basis, then we went dry for a while. But that's the way it is with two outs." The Braves now head to Florida to open up a three-game series with the Marlins, hoping to win the second series of the road trip and make a desperate push for the playoffs. "It's not a challenge," Cox said. "We have to do something like that." Giles, for one, was thankful for the split in Washington and the momentum it could create moving to Florida. "The last thing we wanted to do was drop three out of four to these guys," Giles said. "We definitely wanted to win three out of four, but getting a split, it's better than kissing your sister, I guess."
Michael Walsh is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.