Braves 4, Cardinals 2

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ATLANTA (AP)—This was vintage Greg Maddux: no runs, no walks and a quick game.

Maddux, who got off to a dismal start this season, pitched three-hit ball over seven innings and the streaking Atlanta Braves beat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-2 Wednesday night.

The 2-hour, 10-minute game was Atlanta’s eighth victory in nine games and pushed the Braves into first place for the first time this season. They are in a three-way tie atop the NL East with Montreal and Philadelphia.

“Tonight was good,” Maddux said after Atlanta’s fastest game of the season. “I was thinking about pitching instead of thinking about how to throw pitches. That’s a step in the right direction.”

Marcus Giles and Gary Sheffield hit back-to-back homers off Matt Morris in the first inning for Atlanta. Giles and Sheffield also drove in runs in the eighth against Jeff Fassero to extend the lead to 4-0.

Those runs proved to be valuable when Jim Edmonds hit a two-run homer off Darren Holmes in the ninth. The Braves brought on John Smoltz, who got three outs for his NL-leading eighth save in eight chances—and 24th in a row dating to last season.

Maddux (2-3) lost his first three starts of the season for the first time in his career, with the Braves getting outscored 43-5 in those games.

The four-time Cy Young winner came into Wednesday night’s game with an unsightly 7.52 ERA, having allowed 39 hits and seven homers in 26 1-3 innings.

But Maddux needed just 76 pitches to breeze through seven innings against the hard-hitting Cardinals. He wanted to keep going, but manager Bobby Cox decided to turn to his bullpen. Roberto Hernandez pitched a scoreless eighth, but Holmes failed to get an out in the ninth.

“I think (Maddux) could have finished,” Cox said. “He wanted to go back out there.”

Maddux lowered his ERA to 5.94 with his best outing of the season.

“You knew the same ol’ Doggie would show up at some point,” Braves outfielder Chipper Jones said. “Doggie has been working his tail off on his mechanics. The way the ball was going over the plate tonight, obviously he’s figured it out.”

Smoltz, who hasn’t given up a run all season, retired Orlando Palmeiro on a harmless fly with runners at second and third to end it.

Smoltz admitted he didn’t have his best stuff pitching on back-to-back nights. He still got through it.

“I don’t want to create any kind of situation or atmosphere where the other team feels like they have a chance,” he said. “There’s nights when you’re not going to be at your best, but there’s no reason you can’t get the job done.”

Maddux gave an indication that this night would be different when he avoided early trouble. It was the first time in six starts that he made it through the first two innings without giving up a run.

“What felt good was getting out of the first inning and have our guys come up with the score tied for a change,” Maddux said.

Morris (1-2) took another hard-luck loss against the Braves, the only NL team he’s never beaten. His record against Atlanta dropped to 0-5 despite a 3.44 ERA in 10 career starts.

“Really?” Jones said incredulously. “I know there’s 24 other guys in this clubhouse who don’t like facing him.”

Morris allowed just five hits in seven innings, encountering no other serious problems after giving up the first-inning homers.

“When you put your team in a hole right off the get-go, the whole vibe changes,” Morris said. “I just tried to keep it close. I made some decent pitches after that.”

Fernando Vina was the only St. Louis player to get past second base against Maddux. Vina started the game by getting plunked with a pitch, stole second and moved to third on a groundout. But Edmonds popped up to end the threat.

In the ninth, Edmonds hit his third career homer at Turner Field. He has just one other hit in 43 at-bats in Atlanta, an .093 average.

“I don’t know what they were saying about Maddux early in the season, but he had his stuff tonight,” Edmonds said.

Maddux was ahead all night, throwing 54 strikes and going to three balls on just one hitter. He struck out only one, but didn’t walk anyone.

The Braves jumped ahead in the first when Giles lined a 2-0 fastball into the left-field seats for his third homer of the season.

Sheffield followed with an even longer drive to left for his sixth homer— and second in as many nights against the Cardinals.

In the eighth, Giles had an RBI single and Sheffield followed with asacrifice fly.

Notes

The Cardinals came to Atlanta averaging more than six runs per game. They have reached home only five times in the first two games of the series. … Andruw Jones was called for interference when he blatantly pulled down Vina while the St. Louis second baseman attempted to complete a double play in the seventh. … St. Louis 1B Tino Martinez went 1-for-4 to extend his hittingstreak to 11 games.

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