Series: Game 1 of 2

Atlanta leads 1-0 (as of 9/23)

Game 1: Tuesday, September 23
Game 2: Wednesday, September 24

Expos 0

(81-77, 29-48 away)

Braves 2

(98-60, 54-26 home)

    7:35 PM ET, September 23, 2003

    Turner Field, Atlanta, Georgia 

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    ATL 00000002 - 2 5 1

    W: J. Wright (2-5)

    L: J. Vazquez (13-12)

    S: J. Smoltz (45)

    Atlanta 2, Montreal 0

    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.

    Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press