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Bullpen continues to get job done

Bullpen continues to get job done

NEW YORK -- John Smoltz was supposed to stifle the vaunted Mets offense. He didn't. So when the Mets dinked and dunked their way to a five-run sixth inning, thoughts of a series win evaporated. If Smoltz couldn't stop this lineup, then it didn't seem plausible that the bullpen -- one of the most erratic groups in the league last season -- could.

It's ugly thoughts like those that kept spirits leaden even after the Braves tied the game back up the next inning. And it's ugly thoughts like those that vanished -- perhaps for good -- after a gutsy quartet of bullpen performances slammed the door on an offense that lost a bit of its luster in a 9-6 Atlanta win.

One after another, Braves manager Bobby Cox rolled them out -- Steve Coyler, Tyler Yates, Rafael Soriano and Bob Wickman -- and one after another, they excelled. It was the clear turning point in a game that easily could have gone either way.

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"The bullpen's been the difference in our season already," Smoltz said. "It's been the difference between us being literally 6-12 or 12-6."

Last year, it might have been the former. This year, it's the latter. Sunday's win was the fifth registered by Braves relievers in April, with the group yet to drop a game. Compare that to last year, when the 'pen racked up 23 of the team's 83 losses.

It was Coyler who first opened the bullpen door Sunday, mercifully ending a sixth inning that loomed like a storm over Atlanta's heads. Then, after the Braves tied it up, Yates came on and promptly polished off the middle third of New York's lineup on eight pitches.

"We had a big inning making the comeback to tie the game," Yates said. "All I wanted to do was get the offense back in the dugout and back at the plate as soon as possible."

He did, and after Soriano skated in and out of a jam in the eighth, Wickman did likewise in the ninth -- beating back a lineup that even the usually-dominant Smoltz couldn't stop.

"He dominates for us every time he goes out," Wickman said of Smoltz. "He's always there to protect the bullpen. We were able to help him actually today, which is fine, that we finally had a chance to."

The Braves did it, too, without depth. Lefty Mike Gonzalez was expected back this weekend from his inflamed left elbow, but instead stayed glued to the bench. That put setup duties squarely on the shoulders of the struggling Soriano, who had already surrendered three quick runs in an inning of relief Friday.

But his performance Sunday -- hitting his spots with pitches that darted into the mid-90s -- quieted any doubts. And they softened the loss of Gonzalez, who, even when absent, has proven that this bullpen is wholly different than the one on which the 2006 Braves leaned.

"First half of the season, our bullpen wasn't that great," Yates said. "We were young, but we battled, and I think the second half of the season is when we learned a lot. This year we have two new additions with Soriano and Gonzalez, and those guys are stud relievers.

"With those two and Wickman down there, it's pretty much lights out."

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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