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Escobar's walk-off homer bails out Smoltz

POSTED: June 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.
The Associated Press/

Atlanta Braves' Yunel Escobar, right, celebrates with his teammates after hitting a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 10th inning Monday against the Florida Marlins in Atlanta. Atlanta won 7-5.

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ATLANTA — In the eighth inning, the fans out in right field began to congregate around the railing overlooking the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen.

No. 29 was up and throwing.

Everyone wanted to see the latest incarnation of John Smoltz’s remarkable career.

Unveiling a new three-quarters motion to relieve the pain in his aching shoulder, Smoltz came on in the ninth with a chance for his first save since 2004. He didn’t get it, giving up a two-out, two-run single to Jeremy Hermida, but the Braves rallied for a 7-5 victory on Yunel Escobar’s two-run homer in the 10th inning Monday night.

"The beauty of this role," Smoltz said, "is I get to go right back out and do it again."

The starter-turned-closer-turned-starter has returned to the bullpen, most likely the last switch of a back-and-forth career that has made Smoltz the only pitcher in baseball history with 200 wins and 150 saves.

At 41, he hopes that pitching one inning at a time will extend his career. He’s clearly got some work to do.

"I needed a little more touch," Smoltz said. "I knew I was going to be amped up. I threw the ball awfully hard but not exactly in some of the spots. ... I needed the touch to be a little bit better."

The right-hander was activated before the game after two stints on the disabled list this season — sandwiched around five starts — and a rehab stint in the minors.

When Escobar came through with a two-out hit in the eighth that put Atlanta ahead 4-3, the crowd began buzzing with excitement. The bullpen gate swung open and Smoltz emerged, walking slowly to the mound as he did so many times from 2001-04, when he piled up 154 saves as one of baseball’s most dominating closers.

"It was the first time all year I had goose bumps in the outfield," teammate Jeff Francoeur said.

But Smoltz is still a work in progress. While able to throw in the mid-90s, the new motion robbed him of one of his most effective weapons, the split-finger fastball. He had good movement on some of his pitches, but others just floated over the plate. And he’s still struggling to hit the right spots.

"If you ask me what I’m concerned about, it would be that I’m trying to overpower the ball and don’t trust the movement," Smoltz said.

The ninth started well for Smoltz — Cody Ross popped up to third on the first pitch. But Matt Treanor lined a double to the gap in the right-center, the ball skidding off the glove of a diving Gregor Blanco, and pinch-hitter Wes Helms lined a sharp single to left to put runners at first and third.

It looked as though Smoltz might get out of it when Hanley Ramirez flied to medium right. Ross didn’t dare test Francoeur’s powerful arm, but Helms took second on a high throw toward the plate. Hermida followed with a liner to left, the ball getting through Greg Norton to prevent any chance of a play at the plate on the go-ahead run.

"I can’t describe the feeling," Smoltz said of blowing the save. "It’s one of the worst feelings in all of baseball."

Said Hermida: "He was coming off the DL and trying to figure out his pitches. We were very fortunate to get him tonight. He’s one of the best in the game."

At least Smoltz didn’t get saddled with a loss. Kevin Gregg walked Francoeur and Brian McCann, pinch-hitter Josh Anderson hustled down the line to beat out a potential game-ending double play, and Francoeur raced home with the tying run when Gregg skidded one in the dirt for a wild pitch with two outs.

In the 10th, Logan Kensing (3-1) walked Kelly Johnson, then threw a wild pitch that sent him to second. Escobar followed with his fifth homer of the season, a drive that bounced off the top of the wall in right center and into the seats.

The Braves, who have a 2-16 record in one-run games, didn’t improve on that mark. But they’ll take it after getting swept in Cincinnati last weekend.

"I thought it was just a fly ball," Escobar said through a translator. "I was just trying to do my job: fly ball to move the runner to third base, and let Chipper Jones try to drive him in."

Will Ohman (2-0) earned the win with a scoreless top half of the 10th.

Francoeur and Mark Teixeira homered for the Braves, and Escobar came through at the end: His run-scoring single in the eighth gave Smoltz a shot at the save, and the first game-ending homer of the shortstop’s career improved Atlanta’s home record to 23-7. They are just 7-21 on the road.

The Braves jumped to a 2-0 lead, but the Marlins tied it in fourth. Hermida led off with a triple to center and came home on Jorge Cantu’s sacrifice fly. After Mike Jacobs struck out, Dan Uggla doubled to left and scored on Luis Gonzalez’s two-out single to left.

After Teixeira’s homer made it 3-2, Florida knocked out Braves starter Jo-Jo Reyes in the seventh. Uggla started it with another double, this one slamming off the base of the wall in left-center, and Gonzalez followed with a single to right to put runners at first and third.

Manny Acosta replaced Reyes and got a force-out grounder from Cody Ross, but Uggla trotted home with the tying run with the middle of the infield playing back.

Reyes and Florida starter Scott Olsen posted virtually identical lines: six innings, five hits, three runs and four strikeouts. The only difference: Olsen walked two, Reyes one.Notes: Braves RHP Tim Hudson said his strained left hamstring shouldn’t keep him out of next start. Hudson has battled hamstring problems in the past, and said this didn’t feel as bad as some of his other strains. Manager Bobby Cox said he will have an emergency starter ready in case Hudson can’t start Friday against Philadelphia. ... Olsen went 3-0 in his first four starts, but he’s 1-2 with five no-decisions since then. ... Another Atlanta pitcher, RH Blaine Boyer, underwent an MRI after tweaking his right knee on Sunday. It showed no damage.



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