Smoltz, Teixeira drive important win

Smoltz, Teixeira drive important win

ATLANTA -- The longtime manager and the longtime starting pitcher squared off in the dugout in the middle of the eighth inning, but the outcome of the debate was never in doubt.

Each side had a good case, though. Braves manager Bobby Cox didn't want to send John Smoltz out for the ninth inning, because Smoltz had already thrown 118 pitches. Smoltz, unfazed by his high pitch count, was in a groove, something Cox felt was an understatement.

"I told him, 'What groove? You're unhittable right now,'" Cox said.

The fact that Smoltz wasn't allowed to attempt Atlanta's first complete game of the season didn't diminish his performance. He struck out a season-high 12 and allowed just one hit after the third inning in the Braves' 6-2 win over the Diamondbacks on Sunday afternoon at Turner Field. Atlanta backed him with seven extra-base hits, including two home runs by Mark Teixeira.

Smoltz has battled elbow and back injuries for most of the season, and the triple-digit temperature outside wasn't doing him any favors.

"I didn't want to take a chance with him," Cox said. "We've come this far, fighting everything, and there was no sense. He would have started the inning with almost 120 pitches. Down the road, he may have to throw 135, we'll see. He knows me well enough that I'm not going to let him start an inning with 120 pitches."

Smoltz endured a slow start, allowing an RBI double in the first to Orlando Hudson and another run in the third when Chris Young scored from third on a double steal after his own double.

That was the end of Arizona's effectiveness against Smoltz, though. The 40-year-old right-hander, who set the Braves' franchise record for strikeouts on Sunday, said everything "just clicked" after the third inning, and the evidence bore that out.

Smoltz struck out five through three innings. His fifth gave him 2,913 career strikeouts and put him ahead of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro on the Braves' franchise list. Smoltz became more overpowering in later innings, striking out seven more -- the Diamondbacks went down swinging 11 times.

"I've been struggling lately mechanically, and I've been really trying to fight to get it right," Smoltz said. "The last five or six innings were outstanding. I wanted to keep going. I knew they wouldn't let me, but I've been working to try and get this way so I can be more of the pitcher I want to be down the stretch."

Best of the Braves
Franchise career strikeout leaders
Rank
Pitcher
Strikeouts
1.
John Smoltz
2,920
2.
Phil Niekro
2,912
3.
Warren Spahn
2,493
4.
Tom Glavine
2,054
5.
Greg Maddux
1,828
6.
Kid Nichols
1,667
7.
Vic Willis
1,161
8.
Jim Whitney
1,157
9.
Lew Burdette
923
10.
Charlie Buffinton
911
Smoltz didn't have a feel for his offspeed pitches in the early innings, but he found it and then some after the third. The Diamondbacks could have pulled away against Smoltz, but they stranded a runner in scoring position in each of the first three innings.

The Braves' offense, particularly Teixeira, picked Smoltz up during his brief period of ineffectiveness, with the powerful switch-hitter smashing two-run homers in the first and third innings. Teixeira ignited an offense that teed off on Arizona starter Yusmeiro Petit and helped Smoltz win for the first time in five starts.

"[Smoltz] has been kind of a tough-luck loser," Teixeira said. "We haven't gotten him a lot of support the last couple starts, so for us to come out here and score some runs for him early -- he was great, and that's exactly how you draw it up."

Teixeira clubbed a long homer to right-center off Petit to give Atlanta a 2-1 lead in the first, then broke a game that was knotted at 2 with a liner that cleared the right-field wall near the foul pole in the third. Teixeira entered with one hit in his previous 13 at-bats, but broke out of his slump in explosive fashion.

"I'm going to keep trying," Teixeira said. "The great thing about it right now is that I don't have any pressure on me. This lineup is so good, and the players around me are so good that I can just go out there and be myself."

Atlanta's first seven hits went for extra bases. Kelly Johnson hit two doubles, Yunel Escobar homered and doubled, and Willie Harris tripled before Brian McCann hit the Braves' first single in the fifth inning. Escobar's homer was his second of the season and his first since June 4, which was his third Major League game.

The Braves had just one hit after the fifth, but they had already done sufficient damage by then, and it was plenty for Smoltz, who enjoyed probably his most dominant effort of the season.

"It was vintage Smoltz today," Cox said. "He really was on top of his game -- a lot of strikeouts and great pitching from him. A great fastball today, and his breaking ball was probably better than it's been all year. How they got two runs off him, I have no idea. He was that good."

Now the rest of the Braves' rotation needs to follow suit if they are to play important games in late September. Tim Hudson, with 14 wins, has shown to be up to the task, but the rest of the rotation has turned in several poor outings during the last few weeks.

Hudson starts on Monday for the Braves, who expected better than a 3-3 record on the just-completed homestand, especially after winning the first two games against the Giants.

"Based on what we've been doing, this was a must-win," Smoltz said. "You turn it over to [Hudson], and sooner or later, we've got to put a winning streak together. It was very much a must-win, and I approached it that way."

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