The Atlanta Braves are getting their ace back at a perfect time.
The Reds (39-55) hung on to beat the Braves 6-5 on Tuesday despite giving up all five runs in the final two innings. They have not swept the Braves (50-44) in three games in Atlanta since April 13-16, 1990, and have not earned any three-game sweep against them since Sept. 2-4, 1996 in Cincinnati.
“I don’t care if it’s 6-5 or 6-0. I’m happy to have the win,” said manager Pete Mackanin, whose team is mired in last place in the NL Central. “We’re creeping along and racking up some wins.”
To pull off the sweep, however, the Reds will likely have to get past Smoltz (9-5, 3.07 ERA), who’s expected to be activated from the disabled list to make the start. The 40-year-old right-hander, who has been nursing shoulder inflammation, last pitched July 2 and had to pull out of the All-Star game because of the injury.
“He’s ready to go,” manager Bobby Cox said. “He feels great.”
Smoltz allowed three runs in six innings and was charged with an 8-2 loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers in his last outing. He is 2-3 with a 4.18 ERA over his last six starts, including a May 29 outing in Milwaukee in which he tweaked the shoulder.
Smoltz owned a 2.58 ERA heading into that start against the Brewers.
“This has been a weird whole first half,” Smoltz said. “Every game I was just one pitch away from having every game be a quality start. Going into the sixth inning every game, that’s a dream.”
Smoltz is 19-11 with a 3.05 ERA in 44 appearances - 37 starts - against the Reds, tying him for his highest victory total against any opponent.
The Braves opened the second half with a three-game home sweep of Pittsburgh, but have been outscored 16-8 by the Reds. On Tuesday, Cincinnati’s Jeff Keppinger made his third start since being recalled from the minors July 7 and hit a two-run double.
Mackanin said Keppinger earned more playing time in Wednesday’s finale.
“It’s awesome,” said Keppinger, who went to Parkview High in suburban Atlanta, of Tuesday’s start. “I had a lot of family and a lot of friends here. It made me feel comfortable.”
Ken Griffey Jr. went 1-for-4 with an RBI single, one night after passing Frank Robinson for sixth place on the career home run list with his 587th. He is one hit shy of 2,500.
Cincinnati will hand the ball to Aaron Harang (10-2, 3.70), who’s among the NL leaders in wins and strikeouts (120). He finished last season tied for the league lead with 16 victories and was first in the NL with 216 strikeouts.
Harang won his fifth straight decision Friday, allowing three runs in six innings of an 8-4 road victory over the New York Mets to become the first Reds pitcher to start 10-2 since Steve Parris in 1999. He’s undefeated in 10 starts since losing in Cleveland on May 20, and Cincinnati has won each of his last seven starts.
“He throws, like, a sneaking fastball. I think he’s underrated,” Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran said.
Harang is 1-2 with a 3.81 ERA in four starts against the Braves, but won his last outing against them 5-4 on Aug. 4, pitching six innings and allowing two runs - one earned.