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Atlanta 2, Montreal 0

9/23/2003

ATLANTA (AP) -- Bring on the playoffs. John Smoltz appears ready
to go.

The Atlanta closer earned his first save in a month, striking
out the side in the ninth inning as the Braves defeated the
Montreal Expos 2-0 Tuesday night. Rafael Furcal broke a scoreless
tie in the eighth with a two-out single.

Smoltz was pitching for the third time since coming off the
disabled list Saturday, but this was his first chance to get save
No. 45.

The game set up perfectly for the Braves -- Shane Reynolds
pitched seven scoreless innings, Jaret Wright worked the eighth and
Atlanta pushed across two runs in the bottom half. Then, the
bullpen doors swung open, Smoltz trotted on the field and the crowd
rose to its feet, pumped up by the booming guitars of AC/DC's
"Thunderstruck."

Smoltz struck out the side on 12 pitches, with all three hitters
going down swinging.

"Oh, man, I needed that," said Smoltz, who earned his first
save since Aug. 23. "There's not many things in my career I need,
but I can't tell you how much I needed that. To get in that game,
have it work like it did, that answered a lot of questions in my
mind."

He also cleared another important hurdle, pitching in
back-to-back games for the first time since a nearly monthlong stay
on the DL with tendinitis. He'll take the next two days off, see
how his elbow feels, and try to get in one more game this weekend
at Philadelphia.

The NL East champion Braves (98-60) are two percentage points
behind West champion San Francisco (97-59) for the league's best
record.

Gary Sheffield added a run-scoring double off Javier Vazquez
(13-12), who dominated the Braves for seven innings before tiring
in the eighth. Sheffield has 128 RBI, breaking the Atlanta record
held since 1966 by Hank Aaron.

"He deserves it more than I do," Sheffield said. "He's been
my idol since I was 5 years old."

But Sheffield's record was a subplot. All eyes were on Smoltz,
who is crucial to Atlanta's chances in the postseason. Nothing
against Will Cunnane, the fill-in closer, but the Braves are an
entirely different team with Smoltz lurking in the bullpen.

"It was a special night for me personally," he said. "I got
over some hurdles."

Smoltz also joined Eric Gagne of Los Angeles as the only
pitchers to total 100 saves over two seasons. Last season, the
Braves closer set an NL record with 55 saves.

"My simplest goal was to try to get 100 saves," Smoltz said.
"I had 41 (and 96 overall) on Aug. 1, and everyone said, 'Oh,
you're going to get there easy.' Then it didn't look like it was
going to happen."

Wright (2-5) earned his first win for the Braves since being
claimed off waivers Aug. 29.

Vazquez allowed only two hits and not a runner past first base
through seven, extending his scoreless streak to 14 innings. But it
ended in the eighth when Furcal lined a single past first baseman
Wil Cordero, who went to his knees but couldn't knock it down.

Mark DeRosa, who led off with a walk, trotted home from third
while Vazquez threw back his head in disgust.

"What can I say?" Vazquez said. "I thought I threw the ball
well, but I lost it. I've lost some tough games this season."

Reynolds matched Vazquez through seven, though the Atlanta
starter wasn't nearly as dominating. The Expos got four runners to
third base against Reynolds, and their best chance to score came in
the second.

Cordero led off with a single and went to third on Todd Zeile's
single to right. Brian Schneider followed with a grounder back to
the mound, which Reynolds fielded and threw to second in an
apparent attempt to start a conventional double play.

As it turned out, the Braves got the best of both worlds -- a
double play without a run scoring. After Reynolds threw to second,
Cordero broke for the plate. Shortstop Furcal spotted the runner
and threw home, with catcher Javy Lopez applying the tag to get
Reynolds out of the jam.

Reynolds hopes to make the postseason roster, though he's
already reached his main goal by getting through a full season
after being cut by Houston at the end of spring training.

"I'm so thankful that I'm healthy, getting a chance to make
these starts," said Reynolds, who underwent back surgery last
year. "That was my No. 1 goal."

Game notes
Montreal (81-77) still needs a win to assure its second
straight winning season. The Expos went 83-79 last year, ending a
streak of five straight losing seasons. ... A funny exchange in the
Braves clubhouse before the game: 1B Robert Fick kidded CF Andruw
Jones about sitting out the game to rest. "What do you have,
Vazquez-itis?" Fick joked. Jones quickly grabbed a stat book that
showed he had a .378 career average against the Montreal starter,
with three homers and five RBI. Jones nearly improved his numbers
in the eighth as a pinch-hitter, flying out to the warning track in
center field. ... Braves 3B Vinny Castilla sat out his second
straight game with a sore middle finger on his right hand. He took
a hard grounder off the hand on Sunday.