10/01/2003 11:52 PM ET
Smoltz holds it down in ninth
ATLANTA -- The eighth inning caused problems for the Braves more than a few times this year, but never quite like this. Never for John Smoltz and the Braves.
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
The ninth, however, is never a problem.
Smoltz yielded two base hits and a sacrifice fly for a blown save in the eighth inning of Wednesday night's Game 2 of the National League Division Series. But his offense bailed him out with two runs in the bottom of the eighth, and Smoltz closed it out for the 13th postseason win of his illustrious career.
"I'm a battler," Smoltz said. "I'm not going to let that situation carry over to the ninth. Normally I come in for one inning and try to nail it down. When you're preparing for two, it's a little bit different, but I just couldn't afford to let not only the team down, the crowd down, myself. I was not going to let them get that go-ahead run."
It was, on the whole, a successful night for the sometimes-maligned Atlanta bullpen, which permitted a run in three innings. Most important, the Braves won, 5-3, giving them a split at home as the Division Series heads for Wrigley Field.
Mike Hampton recovered from a rocky start (pardon the pun) to pitch six strong innings, acting like a reliever for himself, then he gave the ball over to his bullpen. Middle relief has not been an Atlanta strength this year, and when Ray King issued a leadoff walk in the seventh, it seemed that might be a problem again.
But in came Kevin Gryboski, who did exactly what he was supposed to do. He induced Mark Grudzielanek to hit into a 5-4-3 double play, walked Sammy Sosa and struck out Moises Alou on a wicked sinker.
"Gryboski, that was an outstanding job," said manager Bobby Cox. "That seventh inning was a huge turning point."
As for Gryboski, he wasn't looking to put Sosa on base, but it was better than letting the former MVP beat him with a home run.
"I was probably overthrowing a little bit to Sosa," he said. "I was trying to be a little bit too fine. I probably didn't want him to beat me.
"But I'm still gonna go right after him, especially in a one-run game. I don't want the tying run on base, especially with Alou on deck. He can take you deep just as good as Sammy. I wanted to go right at him, but I just fell behind."
After Gryboski made it through the seventh, Cox had a decision -- bring in Smoltz or take his chances with someone else. Rather than putting such a tight game in the hands of a lesser pitcher, Cox went straight to his hammer in the eighth. The bullpen door opened, the music was ratcheted up, the crowd of nearly 53,000 screamed -- and in walked Smoltz.
"We discussed it before the series started and he said he was good to go two innings at any time," Cox said. "He will have one day off in between the next game so probably he will be good for one [inning on Friday]."
Smoltz, with a lead, means game over -- most nights. But not this night. Not just yet.
Aramis Ramirez flied out to right, but Eric Karros battled through a tremendous at-bat to single to left. Pinch-hitter Randall Simon singled, and pinch-runner Doug Glanville took third on the play. That allowed Tom Goodwin to tie the game with a sac fly, but Simon was caught between first and second for the final out.
"It didn't feel great," said Smoltz of pitching in the eighth with a one-run lead, "but my job was obviously to hold them down. I didn't do it in the eighth. I made some bad pitches, and fortunately was able to get another chance."
The chance came when Mark DeRosa doubled in two runs in the bottom of the eighth, putting Atlanta back on top. Despite a roundabout path to get there, the Braves were in exactly the situation they wanted to be, with a lead in the ninth and Smoltz on the mound.
"He wasn't as sharp [in the eighth] as the ninth," said catcher Javy Lopez. "I guess it was all about his confidence. I guess he was trying too much. His slider wasn't working the way he wanted it to, so he was counting on his fastball most of the time. That's when Karros adjusted and got the base hit. After that, he was pretty comfortable and he used all his pitches."
And the result, finally, was what it usually is.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.