"I was excited to pitch tonight, especially with a three-game winning streak," said Smoltz, who failed for the third straight time to get his 13th win. "Pitching is so result-oriented. You make what you think is a good pitch, and he hits it for a home run. You kind of start the game with a bad taste in your mouth. But that didn't bother me at all. I felt I could shut them down."
It never happened.
Smoltz (12-9) lasted only two-plus innings, allowing six runs and six hits, including three-run homers to Jacque Jones and Derrek Lee, as the Cubs salvaged the finale of the four-game set at Turner Field, beating the Braves, 8-3, on Monday night.
But failing to sweep the series and seeing their coinciding three-game win streak end was less painful for the Braves than seeing Smoltz walk off the field three batters into the third inning, trailing, 6-0, and with a strained abductor muscle.
It was the second-shortest outing of the season for Smoltz, who has allowed 13 runs in seven innings in his last two starts at Turner Field (a 16.71 ERA). He has lost three starts in a row overall for the first time since early June.
In fact, the shortest outing came the last time he injured the abductor, with two outs in the second inning of the June 23 game at Tampa Bay.
"No rhyme or reason. It just happened," he said. "Just like there was no rhyme or reason in Tampa. It's actually an abductor muscle that I have had my share of issues with. But like Tampa, I was able to come back, so hopefully that will be the case on Saturday."
"It almost feels like a bad cramp, and it grabs me," Smoltz continued. "But the problem with that location is I have to stay back and use that part of my leg to throw a baseball. When you don't feel comfortable doing that, you're not going to throw very many good pitches at times. That's the only thing that will prevent me from pitching, if I don't feel that I can make my pitches in crucial situations out of the stretch. Because that's where it gets you."
Chicago starter Rich Hill (5-6) got the win, limiting the Braves to two runs (one earned) and six hits over 5 2/3 innings, while striking out six, to earn his second win in three starts. Hill threw a career-high 120 pitches, 80 for strikes.
"It's tough when you fall behind a guy like Hill, who's been throwing well, early," said left fielder Matt Diaz, who scored two runs and snapped an 0-for-7 skid with two hits that raised his average to .337. "It just gives him confidence to come out and throw strikes, and that's what he did. And when he gets ahead, he's dirty."
Martin Prado's fourth-inning RBI single produced the Braves' first run off Hill, while Brayan Pena and Tony Pena added RBI singles. Prado was a last-minute replacement at third base for Willy Aybar, who was scratched with an upset stomach. Adam LaRoche was also scratched after straining his right hamstring. Daryle Ward took his place at first base and hit eighth in the order.
Atlanta produced only five runs and 17 hits over the final two games of the series after crushing Cubs pitching for 15 runs and 22 hits in the first two games of the series. They had only two extra-base hits on Monday, doubles by Diaz and Jeff Francoeur, both of whom scored, and although they left more men on base than the Cubs(10-7), only three of those stranded were in scoring position.
Chicago jumped on Smoltz right away, as Juan Pierre slapped his sixth hit of the series, a single to center field. Freddie Bynum followed with another single to center. Smoltz then retired Aramis Ramirz and Lee, but Jones hit an 0-1 pitch just over the left-field wall for his 24th homer of the season to make it 3-0.
"I was really surprised," said Smoltz. "I know Jacque Jones has tremendous power, but he hit that pitch the other way. Both home runs were one row over the fence."
In the third inning, Smoltz issued his only two walks of the game, to Bynum and Ramirez. It was on ball four to Bynum that Smoltz felt pain in his groin that would force him out of the game two batters later.
"In Tampa, I felt a pop," he said. "This was just like a grab. I'm sure had the game been closer, I might have been able to keep pitching."
Lee made sure that wasn't an issue, hitting his first of two homers on the night to right field on the first pitch following a visit to the mound by manager Bobby Cox and Braves trainers. The homer, which traveled 386 feet, was his seventh of the year and opened a 6-0 bulge.
Lee added his eighth homer on the first pitch of the fifth inning, crushing a Ken Ray offering 406 feet to deep left-center. It was Lee's first multi-homer game of the season and 18th of his career.
"He hits two homers and strikes out three times," said Cox. "We pitched him good three times."
Except for left fielder Angel Pagan, who went 0-for-5, every Cubs starter, including Hill, had a hit by the sixth, as the Cubs pounded out 10 hits off of eight different Atlanta pitchers.
It certainly wasn't the way Atlanta planned to head into series against Philadelphia and Florida, both ahead of them in the Wild Card race.