By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007
ATLANTA -- Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
He is not having a season that will define his career. His team likely will miss the playoffs. Turner Field felt half full -- or maybe half empty -- Friday night. But in the late innings, as Atlanta Braves right-hander John Smoltz stepped to the rubber and hurled balls the Washington Nationals could not hit squarely, a signature moment nearly unfolded.
Smoltz, the 40-year-old dean of a Braves pitching staff that doesn't compare to those from the past, held the Washington Nationals without a hit for seven innings in a 7-1 masterpiece, snapping the Nationals' five-game winning streak. Smoltz's no-hit bid was broken up by Ronnie Belliard's leadoff single in the eighth, a clean line drive to right -- about the only thing that was clean about the Nationals' performance, given that they committed a season-high five errors, three from third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
The pitch that Belliard hit, Smoltz's 109th, was the last he threw, and as soon as the ball settled into right, Smoltz knew it. Wearing down physically and ill much of the day, he had relayed his plans to Braves Manager Bobby Cox in the previous innings.
"I told Bobby, 'As soon as I give up a hit, I'm done,' " Smoltz said. "I don't say that very often."
Smoltz has had days in which he felt dominant, likely more dominant than he was Friday, when he hung a few sliders the Nationals missed, walking two and striking out 10. Zimmerman can only hope he has no more days like this one. Not only did he commit errors 20, 21 and 22, but he struck out in all four of his plate appearances -- three times against Smoltz.
"It's embarrassing," Zimmerman said. "You don't want to make one error. To make three errors is really embarrassing."
Yet the fact that the Nationals threw the ball into nearly every corner of Turner Field was overshadowed by Smoltz's performance. A few Nationals hitters said Smoltz used five or six pitches -- "He was devastating," first baseman Dmitri Young said -- and simply had them guessing, and then hoping they guessed right. They didn't.
"There's nothing new to say about John," Manager Manny Acta said. "He's John Smoltz. That's who he his. He just toyed with us. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
Smoltz rolled from the start, recording five of the first six outs on strikeouts. Zimmerman's at-bats demonstrated Smoltz's best work. He got Zimmerman to look at a slider to end his first at-bat, and got him swinging through the same pitch to end his second.
"It got to the point where I was looking slider," Zimmerman said, "and still couldn't hit it."
Twice before Belliard's hit, the Nationals came within a whisker of breaking up the bid. With one out in the fifth, Belliard, who entered the game 2 for 14 lifetime against Smoltz, worked the count full, then smoked a pitch down the left field line. The ball landed foul by a few inches, and Belliard flew out on the next pitch.
And with two down in the seventh, Austin Kearns worked the count full, then grounded one hard into the hole at shortstop. There, Yunel Escobar ranged to his right and made a backhanded attempt at the ball. It bounced out of his glove, and he hurried the throw. Kearns was safe, and after a short delay, official scorer Jack Wilkinson ruled it an error on Escobar. When the decision popped up on the scoreboard, Turner Field thundered its approval.
By that point, Smoltz was entering into territory where he hadn't been before. He had started 456 games in his career -- a number that's less than it might be because of his four years as one of the National League's best closers -- and authored 16 shutouts. But he had always, at the very least, given up a hit.
The closest Smoltz had come before was in April 1999, when he one-hit the Cincinnati Reds, allowing only a fifth-inning single to Eddie Taubensee. He has won 20 games in a season, saved 50, been an all-star eight times, won a Cy Young award. He had never thrown a no-hitter.
"It had a chance to be a magical night," Smoltz said. "It really felt like it. Unfortunately, I just ran out of gas."
Belliard's hit came on a 1-2 slider that hung a bit. When Cox stepped from the dugout, the crowd of 31,116 rose for a standing ovation, and the entire Braves infield gathered on the mound, patting Smoltz on the back. When he walked off the field, Smoltz removed his cap -- revealing the balding head of a man whose major league career began 19 years ago, when Zimmerman was 3.
"He's a Hall of Fame pitcher," Zimmerman said.
Friday night, he gave a performance worthy of such a distinction.