ATLANTA -- The arrival of the Fish should have been greeted with fireworks, Kool & The Gang singing Celebration and a police escort from the airport.
The price tag for these Florida Marlins may have been placed at $150 million, but they're invaluable to a club desperate to find somebody to bully.
Starting a stretch of 12 games against the dredges of the NL East and West, Atlanta kicked off its next-to-last homestand Friday night with a dominant display of pitching and power against baseball's worst team.
John Smoltz boosted his record to 10-1 since the All-Star break with an eight-strikeout performance and Gerald Williams hit a pair of home runs and drove in a career-high five runs as the Braves put consecutive wins together for the first time in 17 days with an 8-2 victory over the Marlins before a crowd of 47,235 fans at Turner Field.
"We got hitting and pitching and we didn't get beat by a home run ball," manager Bobby Cox said. "We finally put it on the other team."
The win was Atlanta's 94th; the loss was Florida's 100th. Last year's World Series champions have dropped 44 of their last 56 games, including their last nine straight on the road.
Smoltz's 15th win gave the Braves a quartet of 15-game winners for the second time this century and lowered their magic number to three for clinching a seventh consecutive division title.
"We need to put some wins together and it's a tough task against a team who wants to beat us bad," Smoltz said. "It's a tough lineup. They don't have a lot of power, but they all have danger spots."
Williams' second career grand slam against Marlins starter Kirt Ojala (2-5) in the third inning was all Smoltz needed. But Williams, hitting .344 against left-handers this season and .204 against righties, wasn't finished. He blasted a solo homer in the fifth against right-hander Eric Ludwick, then singled, stole second and scored his third run in the seventh.
"Smoltz threw the ball exceptionally well," Williams said. "He didn't need much help. I want to make sure I cash in on limited opportunities."
That was game, set and match for the Marlins, who are 5-15 in their last 20 games away from home.
Smoltz, 11-2 in 16 starts since coming off the disabled list June 20, dominated a Florida lineup that ranks as the league's third-worst with a .250 batting average. He took a no-hitter into the fifth inning before yielding single runs in the fifth and sixth. Todd Dunwoody spoiled his shutout with an RBI hit in the fifth, then Luis Castillo reached out and poked a pitch just inside first base in the sixth, scoring Gregg Zaun from second base.
In improving his career record to 7-2 against the Marlins, Smoltz (15-3) went seven innings and yielded six hits and three walks. His only loss since the All-Star break was Aug. 31 when he dropped a 4-3 decision to the Astros. The Braves are 20-4 in his starts and he continues to lead the league in winning percentage.
"The team has come through for me and consequently I'm sitting here with 15 wins I didn't think I'd attain," he said.
Smoltz indicated he still plans to skip a start to rest his elbow after the Braves clinch the division, though he's uncertain which game he'll miss. It's more preventive medicine and a chance to rest up for the playoffs than a response to any specific ache or pain.
"I'm just kind of quietly going along," he said. "That's the way I like it. It's been a miracle year. There were a lot of times when I didn't think I could go out there."
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