Through the first seven innings, Smoltz had surrendered just two hits. Unfortunately, this was another of those games in which his offense didn't lend much support. Before Chipper Jones singled to begin an attempted ninth-inning rally, the Braves had recorded just one hit.
As Smoltz was blanking the Nationals, he was being matched by Jason Bergmann, who allowed just one hit over six scoreless innings. By doing so, he registered his third career victory against a veteran pitcher, who owns 194 regular-season victories and a Major League record 15 more in the postseason.
"We were pretty undisciplined at the plate tonight and we didn't give the pitcher an opportunity to beat himself," Jones said in reference to Bergmann, who walked two of the first three batters he faced and then settled into a groove that allowed him to notch a career-high eight strikeouts.
Entering this game, the Nationals hadn't led at the beginning of any of the 72 innings that they'd played and the Braves had lost just one of their first eight games. When Jon Rauch entered in the bottom of the eighth inning, he became the first Nationals pitcher to step on the mound with a lead this year.
"This team wasn't going to keep losing the way that they were losing," Smoltz said of the Nationals, who have won just two of their first 10 games. "Tonight they bowed their necks and won a game that could start something good for them."
Before the Nationals slipped out of town, things got interesting for their closer Chad Cordero, who has had his share of problems against the Braves. After allowing Jones' one-out single, the right-handed reliever walked Andruw Jones to setup a matchup against Brian McCann, who entered the at-bat hitting .444 (4-for-9) with runners in scoring position.
But McCann, who had homered in one of his two previous at-bats against Cordero, surprisingly looked at a fastball for strike three. Jeff Francoeur, who hit a walk-off grand slam against the Nationals closer last year, followed with an improbable walk. But the night filled with improbable moments ended one batter later, when Scott Thorman was unable to check his swing on a 3-2 slider.
"I thought we were going to score," Chipper Jones said. "I thought somebody was going to come through. I thought the biggest out of the game was him getting McCann. That was a huge out. B-Mac is one of the toughest outs in the game. He's clutch."
When it took Bergmann 30 pitches to escape the first inning, it certainly looked like this would be a night where the Braves' offense would roll. Instead, they managed just two hits and struck out 11 times. Three of those strikeouts came in the momentum-damaging first inning.
"We had a couple of chances, but didn't get the job done," McCann said. "That's the way baseball goes, I guess."
Through the first seven innings, Smoltz had encountered little trouble. After hitting Chris Snelling with a pitch in the third inning, he found the Nationals with runners at first and second with nobody out. That threat was averted when Bergmann popped up his sacrifice bunt attempt, leading to a double play.
Unfortunately for Smoltz, he wouldn't be so lucky when he started the eighth by hitting Snelling's left foot with a pitch. One out later, he uncorked a wild pitch that led to a walk and gave the Nationals runners at the corners with just one out and the heart of their order coming to the plate.
"When I threw the wild pitch, it made it awfully tough," Smoltz said. "Then I had to be perfect. They hit two very good pitches to score the runs."
After allowing the consecutive RBI singles to Belliard and Zimmermann, Smoltz issued an intentional walk that was followed with two consecutive strikeouts. With that, he ended a 122-pitch effort in dominant fashion.
"Smoltzie can't pitch any better than he did tonight," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He threw great."
Smoltz certainly pitched better than he had in his first two starts of the season, both of which came in games won by the Braves. In his first two outings, he'd completed 12 innings, surrendered 15 hits and escaped numerous jams.
While the jams were far less abundant on this unpredictable evening, Smoltz still had to walk away without the fitting victorious result.
"I'll take 33 more of these [kinds of starts]," Smoltz said. "I know the results will be a lot different."