Smoltz back to his ace self

Smoltz files Cards under win column

ST. LOUIS -- The smile that has been absent from John Smoltz's face for most of the past three months has returned. So, too, has the wicked slider that his previously ailing shoulder prevented him from throwing.

With a little more than a month left in the regular season, Smoltz is once again looking like a dominant ace. Whether this will be enough for the Braves to gain entry into the postseason remains to be seen. But it's a certainty that they definitely weren't going anywhere without him.

"We're going to need him and [Tim Hudson] to absolutely deal the rest of the way," Jeff Francoeur said. "There's not much else to say."

After watching Smoltz deliver an eight-inning gem during his team's 7-2 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium on Friday night, it wasn't hard for Braves manager Bobby Cox to find good things to say about his rejuvenated ace.

"He was dominating," Cox said of Smoltz, who went to a three-ball count just once during his eight-inning effort in which he allowed six hits and two earned runs.

Coming off the demoralizing four-game series against the Reds, during which they won just once, the Braves needed a sterling effort from Smoltz, and he gladly delivered it against a Cardinals organization that has given him fits in the past. He was perfect in five of the eight innings that he pitched, and the only damage he incurred came when he surrendered three hits in St. Louis' two-run third inning.

"We've seen this and been through a lot of tough games," said Smoltz, who won a second consecutive start for the first time since May 24. "Cincinnati was obviously not protocol. Just about every game we could have won. You hope that you can reset it and start something good."

After Thursday's 12-inning loss to the Reds, there was certainly reason for the Braves to sulk. Thus, during Friday's pregame meeting, Cox reminded his team that they were still definitely within striking distance in the National League Wild Card chase.

With this series-opening victory, the Braves moved into a second-place tie with the Phillies in the NL Wild Card race, which the Padres still lead by three games.

"This is the time of the year that I thoroughly enjoy, especially when you're in [the postseason hunt]," said Smoltz, who ended his 103-pitch evening by getting Albert Pujols to hit a weak two-out grounder with runners on first and second base.

With Chipper Jones and Brian McCann both contributing two-run doubles, this marked the fourth time during the first five games of this 10-game road trip that the Braves have scored at least seven runs. Knowing that type of production was wasted twice previously this week only adds to the significance of Smoltz's effort.

"It was good to put all of it together," said Kelly Johnson, whose defensive efforts were lauded by Cox after the game. "It was good to come out, get big runs in an inning and come back and shut them down for the rest of the game. That's kind of a change of pace from what's been going on. Games like that are momentum swingers."

After McCann's third-inning two-run double was matched by a two-out, two-run double by Chris Duncan in the bottom half of the frame, the Braves pounded Cardinals starter Kip Wells during the decisive five-run fourth.

Mark Teixeira followed Chipper's two-run double with a run-scoring single that gave him his 29th RBI in the 22 games that he's played since being acquired by the Braves at the trade deadline. All of the support was more than enough for Smoltz, who evened his career record against the Cardinals to 11-11. The only NL team he doesn't have a career winning mark (12-15) against is the Giants.

Pujols, who entered the game with seven hits, including three homers, in 15 career at-bats against Smoltz, was hitless in four at-bats. He grounded out twice, struck out and hit a lazy pop fly that was caught by Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar.

"I've struggled with these guys, more or less the early Cardinals, when they had a lot of speed," Smoltz said. "Nonetheless, I've struggled with some of these guys in this lineup. I changed it up with changeups."

When Smoltz injured his shoulder while throwing a warmup pitch during his May 29 start in Milwaukee, he was hopeful that it wouldn't provide a lingering effect. This marked the sixth straight start that he wasn't bothered by any alarming sense of discomfort.

Just in time for the stretch run, Smoltz is beginning to realize results and relieve himself of the frustration that he's felt during a majority of this season. In his past four starts, he's 2-0 with a 2.89 ERA.

"My mechanics are more in sync," Smoltz said. "I'm not throwing some of those pitches where you see me walk around the mound and basically dog cuss myself."

Fortunately for the Braves, the Cardinals were the only ones cussing Smoltz at the end of this evening.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.