Braves 5, Rangers 2

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ATLANTA (AP)—Greg Maddux wanted to be aggressive. He was facing the perfect team.

Maddux pitched eight strong innings in his longest outing of the season, getting back to .500 as the Atlanta Braves defeated the Texas Rangers 5-2 Wednesday night.

Maddux (5-5) threw only 71 pitches—53 of them for strikes—against the free-swinging Rangers, who weren’t very familiar with their opponent. Carl Everett and Rafael Palmeiro were the only Texas players who had faced the Atlanta starter.

“They wanted to be aggressive early, and I wanted to be aggressive early,” Maddux said. “They got some hits, but I got some outs. They hit some balls at people.”

Maddux also drove in a run and made a stellar defensive play. Gary Sheffield chipped in with a two-run homer, helping send the Rangers to their fifth straight loss.

Maddux has put together three straight effective starts in an up-and-down season. Over the last 20 innings, he has surrendered just three runs, looking more like a four-time Cy Young winner and not the guy who came into the came with an uncharacteristic 4.90 ERA.

“This was a very aggressive team,” said John Smoltz, who worked a perfect ninth for his 22nd save in 23 chances. “Greg had to be on, or it was going to be a very long game.”

Maddux blanked the Rangers for six innings, needing only 50 pitches as his team staked him to a 4-0 lead. He allowed four singles to the leading home-run team in the majors, going to two balls on just two hitters.

“Holy mackerel,” Marcus Giles said. “I was looking back at the scoreboard starting the seventh inning and he had thrown 50 pitches. I’ve never anything like that in my life. I thought it was a typo. I couldn’t believe it.”

The Rangers finally broke through in the seventh, halving the deficit on a two-run single by Juan Gonzalez. But Maddux escaped the inning with some help from a brilliant defensive play.

Einar Diaz doubled to the gap in left-center, but Chipper Jones cut off the ball before it got to the wall, whirled and threw back toward infield. Giles took the relay in short left and threw out Gonzalez at the plate, with catcher Henry Blanco made a nice scoop and tag.

“I think that took a little wind out of their sails,” Giles said. “Momentum is a big thing, especially late in the game.”

At the plate, Maddux had a run-scoring single in the fourth to give the Braves a 4-0 lead. The 13-time Gold Glove winner helped protect the lead in the sixth, pouncing off the mound to make a diving stop and throw on a slow roller by leadoff hitter Michael Young.

Maddux went eight innings for the first time this year, getting a scare on his final pitch. Alex Rodriguez flied out to the warning track with a runner at third.

Smoltz blew away the Rangers in the ninth, striking out two before Everett flied out to end the game.

“Unfortunately, I’ve seen that act before: Maddux and Smoltz,” Texas manager Buck Showalter said. “Chipper cutting that ball off before it hit the wall was a key play. If he hadn’t, a lot of other things could have happened.”

Maddux had gone seven innings in four previous starts.

The Braves went ahead 1-0 in the second on one of two errors by Texas third baseman Hank Blalock.

The Rangers threw behind Robert Fick at second, attempting to pick him off. The runner broke for third and should have been out, but Blalock missed the throw from Rodriguez. The ball skidded next to the Rangers dugout while Fick trotted home.

Sheffield made it 3-0 in the fourth against John Thomson (3-7). Giles led off with a single and Sheffield hit a 3-2 fastball deep into the left-field seats for his team-leading 15th homer.

“Sheff has been incredible,” manager Bobby Cox said. “He’s certainly at the top of the heap for MVP as far as I’m concerned.”

Thomson went five innings, giving up six hits and three earned runs.

“There’s very minimal room for error when you’re up against Maddux,” hesaid.

Notes

Braves CF Andruw Jones didn’t start for the third game in a row because of an ailing shoulder, ankle and knee. He came off the bench to hit a game-winning homer in Tuesday’s 6-5 victory over the Rangers. … Atlanta C Javy Lopez missed his fifth straight game with a sore right hamstring but plans to return on Thursday. … Sheffield’s homer was estimated at 414 feet. … Blalock also made an errant throw in the sixth after fielding a dribbler hit by Vinny Castilla. … Maddux fell behind in the count to just nine of 30 hitters. … Fick walked with the bases loaded in the seventh to drive in Atlanta’sother run.

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