At Last, Nats Solve Smoltz

The Braves' Edgar Renteria is tagged out by Nationals pitcher Ramon Ortiz after being caught in a rundown.
The Braves' Edgar Renteria is tagged out by Nationals pitcher Ramon Ortiz after being caught in a rundown. (By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)
By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

ATLANTA, June 7 -- After making nearly 650 pitching appearances in 18 major league seasons, and with a right elbow that needed ligament transplant surgery six years ago, Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz is not nearly as menacing as he once was. His fastball isn't as swift and his split-finger fastball doesn't drop like it used to. He seldom uses a knuckleball anymore, and his change-up isn't as deceiving.

But even at 39, Smoltz still is pretty effective, and he has been especially good against the Washington Nationals. Going into Wednesday night's game at Turner Field, teams from the Nationals-Expos franchise hadn't beaten Smoltz since 1994, and he had a 16-7 record with 17 saves and a 2.54 ERA against them.

So to beat Smoltz, Nationals Manager Frank Robinson figured before the game: "You have to have a well-pitched game against him and a well-played game against him to beat him. He's a tough guy out there with good stuff."

Smoltz's stuff was pretty good again Wednesday night, but the Nationals were better. They got a two-run homer from right fielder Marlon Anderson in the sixth inning to take a 3-0 lead, then added two more runs in the eighth on pinch hitter Daryle Ward's double to beat the Braves, 5-2, in front of a crowd of 32,001.

The Nationals won two out of three games against the Braves and went 6-3 on their three-city road trip, moving them within six games of .500. The Nationals play their next 11 games at RFK Stadium, starting with the first of four games Thursday night against the Philadelphia Phillies.

"It's success," Robinson said. "It's not just winning the games. We played well and that's the key to it also. We pitched well, we played well and we got some key hits. It's great. It's a good feeling."

Ward, who didn't have a pinch hit during the road trip, came up with the key hit this time. He fought off several pitches from reliever Tyler Yates before hitting a 3-2 pitch down the left field line, scoring Royce Clayton and Jose Vidro for a 5-2 lead.

"It felt good," Ward said. "I was battling. I swung at a bad pitch at 3-1 because I was a little anxious. I was ahead in the count and swung at a bad pitch. I just told myself I needed to come through and get a hit for the team. Luckily, I was able to hit a sinker into left field."

The Nationals again got a strong pitching performance from what once seemed like an unlikely source: Ramon Ortiz. After losing his first four decisions, Ortiz won his fifth game in a row, allowing six hits and two earned runs in 6 2/3 innings. Chad Cordero earned his 11th save and didn't allow a base runner in the ninth.

"It's something nobody could have predicted and it's been enjoyable to watch," Robinson said of Ortiz. "It's just like somebody went, 'Poof!' and he's a different person."

Ortiz matched Smoltz nearly pitch for pitch early in the game, as each starter allowed two hits and one walk in the first five innings. After striking out three of four hitters from the end of the fourth through the fifth, Smoltz finally ran into trouble in the sixth. With two outs, Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman hit back-to-back doubles to make it 1-0. Then Anderson belted a slider from Smoltz over the right field wall for a 3-0 lead.

"I came into the clubhouse right before that at-bat to get some batting gloves," Anderson said. "I heard the guys on TV say we hadn't beaten him since 1994. Man, that's a long time when you're playing in the same division. It's good to get that out of the way."

For a while, it looked as if the drought might last longer. With a 3-0 lead, Ortiz had trouble in the sixth. Shortstop Edgar Renteria led off with a double over center fielder Damian Jackson. Then Chipper Jones bounced sharply back to Ortiz, who ran at Renteria when he was caught between second and third. Renteria stood calmly, waiting for Ortiz, and used enough time in the rundown so that Jones moved to second. Two batters later, Adam LaRoche hit a run-scoring single into center to make it 3-1.

Ortiz seemed to regain his composure, though, getting two quick outs in the seventh. Then Ortiz left his second pitch to pinch hitter Pete Orr over the plate, and Orr hit his first homer of the season into the right field seats to cut the Nationals' lead to 3-2.

On the next pitch, another defensive lapse in the outfield nearly cost the Nationals a run -- and another player -- when Marcus Giles hit a fly ball deep into center field. Jackson sprinted toward the wall, but Marlon Byrd, who came into the game in the seventh as a defensive replacement for Anderson, was chasing the baseball, too. Jackson leaped to catch it, but he nearly crashed into Byrd as he hit the wall. Giles ended up with a triple and Jackson lay on the grass for several minutes. He stayed in the game.

Robinson said the time trainers used to check on Jackson probably gave reliever Gary Majewski enough time to warm up. He came into the game and struck out Renteria on five pitches.

"I was walking back, saying: 'Wow! This was really kind of a blessing,' " Robinson said. "This gave him enough time to get ready. I didn't even have to ask if he was ready. He's got great stuff. It's just a matter of him not going out there and trying to throw it through the wall."

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