Series: Game 1 of 3

Atlanta leads 1-0 (as of 9/21)

Game 1: Tuesday, September 21
Game 2: Wednesday, September 22
in 10
Game 3: Thursday, September 23

Reds 4

(68-82, 29-43 away)

Braves 5

(89-62, 44-29 home)

    7:35 PM ET, September 21, 2004

    Turner Field, Atlanta, Georgia 

    123456789 R H E
    CIN 000100021 4 9 1
    ATL 01110020 - 5 12 0

    W: J. Thomson (13-8)

    L: B. Claussen (2-6)

    S: J. Smoltz (40)

    Thomson starts strong

    ATLANTA (AP) -- The Braves are getting ready to celebrate.


    John Thomson pitched seven strong innings, Julio Franco had three hits and Atlanta reduced its magic number for winning the NL East to three with a 5-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night.

    "We've whittled it down to three, thanks to the Phillies and our own play. Three sounds a lot better than five," manager Bobby Cox said.

    The Braves' victory, coupled with second-place Florida's 4-2 loss to Philadelphia, means Atlanta could clinch its 13th straight division title as soon as Thursday.

    The Marlins trail the Braves by 9½ games.

    No one is more excited than Thomson, who is poised to pitch in the playoffs for the first time in his eight-year career. He's helped the Braves cope with the loss of Greg Maddux, who was let go in a salary purge after last season.

    "The last five or six years, I had started planning my vacation already," Thomson said. "A buddy of mine wants me to take a fishing trip with him, but I told him we're going to have to hold off on that."

    Thomson (13-8) allowed only one run and five hits to win his third straight start, also setting a season high with nine strikeouts. He is 7-1 in his last 14 starts.

    "He's nasty when he has to be," said John Smoltz, who struggled in the ninth but held on for his 40th save. "I'm proud of him. He's never been through anything like this."

    Smoltz took care of some personal business, finishing his 57th game to automatically renew his contract for 2005. He'll make $12 million next season.

    "I'm glad that's over," he said. "That's not what I was pitching for this year."

    Smoltz's 150th career save wasn't one of his finest. He retired the first two hitters in the ninth, then gave up three straight hits, including Jacob Cruz's RBI single.

    After a trip to the mound by pitching coach Leo Mazzone, Smoltz struck out Felipe Lopez with two on to end it.

    Franco singled in his first three at-bats, driving in a run in the fourth. The 46-year-old first baseman moved up to 91st on the career hit list with 2,447, passing Mark Grace and Dwight Evans.

    "That's very good company," Franco said. "I'm happy that I'm getting the opportunity to continue playing and reaching the goals that I've set."

    Eddie Perez had two RBI for the Braves, who could have beaten the Reds much worse. Atlanta left 13 runners on base -- at least one in each of the first seven innings.

    As it was, the Braves outhit Cincinnati 12-9.

    Brandon Claussen (2-6) lasted only four innings for the Reds, giving up seven hits and walking four.

    "I gave up a couple of two-out hits, and that came back to haunt me," Claussen said. "There were times through the four innings when I couldn't get in a groove mechanically. If some of my pitches had been an inch lower or an inch higher, things could have been a lot better."

    That's the sign of a young pitcher.

    "He got a lot of two-strike counts," Reds manager Dave Miley said. "He was close to putting them away. He needs to make quality pitches back to back."

    The Braves left the bases loaded in the first, but broke through in the second. Eli Marrero led off with a single, moved to second on Rafael Furcal's walk and came home on Marcus Giles' two-out single to left.

    That would be a familiar theme. Perez made it 2-0 in the third with another two-out hit, singling to center to drive in Franco. Then it was Franco's turn to come through with two outs, his single in the fourth bringing home Giles.

    The Braves tacked on two more runs in the seventh. Marrero had an RBI double and Perez hit a sacrifice fly.

    Jason LaRue pushed across Cincinnati's first run in the fourth with a two-out double.

    After Thomson left, Chris Reitsma gave up two runs in the eighth. Sean Casey had a sacrifice fly and Adam Dunn drove in another run with a groundout.

    Game notes

    The last time Thomson had nine strikeouts was July 17, 2003, with Texas. His career high is 12. ... Cincinnati CF Wily Mo Pena left in the seventh after straining his right hamstring while trying to beat out a grounder. He walked off the field slowly and will return to Cincinnati on Wednesday to get the injury checked out by the team's medical staff. ... Next up for Franco on the career hit list: Red Schoendienst at 2,449. "Who?" Franco said.

    Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press