Braves 2, Cardinals 1

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ATLANTA (AP)—John Smoltz wasn’t going to give in to the St. Louis Cardinals. If he had to keep pitching out of trouble, so be it.

Smoltz scattered nine hits and four walks—both season highs—for his second straight win, outdueling Jeff Suppan to lead the Atlanta Braves past the Cardinals 2-1 on Sunday.

The Braves won for the eighth time in 10 games despite getting outhit 10-4. They took two of three from St. Louis in a weekend series matching two of the NL’s best teams.

All three games were decided by one run.

“That was a great series,” Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. “All three games were about as good as you would want.”

Smoltz wasn’t at his best. Trying to shake off a cold, he was put to the test all afternoon by one of the league’s most dangerous lineups. Give him a passing grade.

“I was not going to give in,” he said. “I wanted to make them hit my pitch. They laid off a lot of good ones.”

Smoltz (2-3) returned to the starting rotation this year after three-plus seasons as a top closer. He lost his first three decisions, mainly because of a lack of run support, and he didn’t have much room for error against the Cardinals.

In 6 2-3 innings, Smoltz never retired the side in order, forcing him to work out of the stretch most of the day. But he got out of two major jams by retiring Scott Rolen, stranding a total of five runners.

The Braves broke a scoreless duel in the sixth with two runs, and Chris Reitsma helped Smoltz escape a last bit of trouble in the seventh.

Dan Kolb, who picked up his first win for Atlanta on Saturday, worked the ninth for his seventh save in eight tries. Though his ERA is still 6.55, he’s feeling more comfortable with his new team.

“A lot of it was coming into a new place and putting so much pressure on myself,” Kolb said. “It was a case of trying to do too much.”

Suppan (2-3) pitched seven strong innings, but the high-scoring St. Louis offense was shut down again by the Braves’ pitching. Atlanta won 3-2 the previous night.

“Two runs were enough for them,” Suppan said. “When you’re going against pitching like that, it’s tough.”

Smoltz had the only hit off Suppan through the first five innings, but the Braves finally put together a couple of hits in the sixth. Wilson Betemit led off with a walk, moved to second on Smoltz’s sacrifice bunt and came home when Rafael Furcal slapped an opposite-field double down the third-base line. Ryan Langerhans followed with an RBI single to right-center.

Otherwise, Suppan was nearly untouchable. He gave up the four hits, walked two and struck out four.

“He changes speeds so well,” Langerhans said. “It’s tough to sit on stuff with him. He can thrown four pitches for strikes, and he was really on his game today.”

Jim Edmonds nearly tied it in the seventh, hitting a two-out, RBI double off the top of the center-field wall. Another foot and it would have been a two-run homer.

Smoltz was more shaken up by the long flyout that ended the fifth with two runners on. The right-hander couldn’t even bear to watch when Rolen drove a fastball toward left-center, but he finally turned to see Langerhans make the catch against the wall.

Only a strong wind blowing toward right prevented a three-run homer. Smoltz sighed deeply and paused to chat with catcher Johnny Estrada on the way to the dugout.

“I knew it was gone,” Smoltz said. “I knew where the pitch was, how bad it was. But he hit it so high that the wind kept it in the park. I felt good about my chances about that.”

The Cardinals had another good chance in the third, loading the bases with a hit and two walks. But Rolen popped up to end the threat.

“We got some pretty good swings and didn’t get anything out of it,” Rolen said. “Yeah, I thought it was out (in the fifth). I hit it well, but it was just an F-7.”

After Edmonds’ RBI double, Rolen came up again in a key situation. This time he walked, prompting Cox to call in Reitsma from the bullpen. He got John Mabry to ground out on the first pitch.

Smoltz’s return to the rotation got off to a miserable start—he lasted only 1 2-3 innings on opening day at Florida, giving up six earned runs. That left him with a staggering ERA of 32.34.

With Sunday’s performance, it dropped to 3.22.

“John didn’t have his very best stuff,” Cox said. “But he made the pitches when it counted and kept us right there.”

Notes

The Braves have scored only 10 runs in Smoltz’s six starts. … Atlanta’s Chipper Jones was used as a pinch-hitter for the third straight game, his ailing left foot still too sore to let him start. He flied out with two on to end the seventh. … Smoltz made his first start against the Cardinals since Aug. 29, 1999. … Suppan lost on the road for only the second time in 13 decisions since joining St. Louis.

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