Braves 4, Devil Rays 3, 11 innings

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP)—The Atlanta Braves hugged one another, exchanged high fives and whooped it up.

The perennial division winners ended a 10-game losing streak with a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Friday night.

“I think it was more exciting than when we clinched last year,” said right fielder Jeff Francoeur after the team stop its longest skid in 18 years. “It’s nice to talk about a win. It’s nice to come in here and see everybody excited and smiles around the clubhouse.”

Todd Pratt’s grounder in the 11th inning drove in the winning run, halting Atlanta’s first double-digit slide since the Braves, who have won 14 consecutive division titles, dropped the first 10 games of the 1988 season.

The victory win came with a cost, though, as starting pitcher John Smoltz left with a strained right groin in the second inning.

“It took me coming out for us to win,” joked Smoltz, who does not believe his injury is serious. “I’ll take it, and I’m sure the team will take it.”

Andruw Jones drove in three runs for the Braves with a two-run homer off Casey Fossum in the first and a sacrifice fly in the eighth that wiped out a 3-2 lead. The Devil Rays had taken the lead on Carl Crawford’s RBI triple in the seventh.

Pratt drove in the go-ahead run when he hit a sharp grounder to a drawn-in infield and shortstop Julio Lugo was unable to field the ball cleanly. Francoeur scored from third, while Lugo threw out Wilson Betemit trying to advance from second to third.

Francoeur drew a leadoff walk from Chad Harville (0-1) and moved to second on Matt Diaz’s sacrifice bunt. After Betemit was walked intentionally, the Braves pulled off a double steal to set the stage for Pratt.

Jorge Sosa (2-9), moved to the bullpen this week, pitched two innings for the victory. The Devil Rays had runners in scoring position against Phil Stockman in the ninth and Sosa in the 10th, but couldn’t drive them home.

“We had chances,” Crawford said. “But we just kind of let it slip away from us.”

Jones’ 18th homer staked Smoltz to a short-lived two-run lead. After giving up an infield single to Julio Lugo and a double to Crawford, the Atlanta starter hit Rocco Baldelli with a pitch to load the bases with no outs in the bottom of the first.

Lugo scored when Jorge Cantu grounded into a double play. The Devil Rays made it 2-2 when Aubrey Huff singled to drive in Crawford.

Smoltz, who’s day to day, hurt himself when he followed through on a pitch and took a couple of steps toward the first base line to pursue Damon Hollins’ slow dribbler with two outs in the second. The ball stayed fair for an infield single.

After a brief chat with the Braves trainer, the right-hander took two warmup tosses and left the game. He allowed two runs and four hits in 1 2-3 innings, departing after throwing just 29 pitches.

Smoltz said leaving was precautionary. He plans a bullpen session on Sunday, and his status will be re-evaluated then.

“In two days I should know what’s going to happen,” Smoltz said. “I’m just so glad to be going to bed on a win.”

Oscar Villarreal was far more effective, retiring eight in a row after walking the first batter he faced. Lugo singled with one out in the fifth for the first hit off the Atlanta reliever.

Fossum, meanwhile, settled after giving up a leadoff single to Marcus Giles and Jones’ two-out homer in the first. The left-hander walked four over the first three innings, but didn’t allow another hit.

Pitching with two extra days of rest after being hit in the leg twice during a start in Detroit last week, Fossum allowed two runs and two hits in six innings. He struck out five and retired the last 10 batters he faced before being replaced by Edwin Jackson.

Villarreal allowed two hits, struck out two and walked one in 4 1-3 innings.

Notes

In his past six starts, Smoltz is 0-3 and has allowed 23 runs and 39 hits in 34 2-3 innings. … Ex-Braves and Devil Rays 1B Fred McGriff threw out the ceremonial first pitch. … Saturday is “Turn Back The Clock Night” at Tropicana Field with the Devil Rays wearing replica uniforms from the 1975 Tampa Tarpons and the Braves wearing their 70’s uniforms. … Jones’ homer was the longest at Tropicana Field this season, traveling an estimated 444 feet.

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