Originally created 09/24/98

Braves blank Florida, get ready for playoffs



MIAMI -- The playoffs can't get here soon enough for John Smoltz.

What was meant to be his final tuneup start Wednesday night turned into a show of force.

Smoltz appeared ready to begin the postseason immediately with a five-inning, nine-strikeout performance and a lineup that included few regulars did as much damage as the approaching hurricane.

The result did nothing to remove the bad taste of last October's NLCS loss to the Marlins, but it certainly improved the Braves' outlook this year. They wrapped up their final road trip of the regular season by embarrassing Florida 11-0 before an announced crowd of 22,469 fans at Pro Player Stadium, dropping their magic number for clinching home field advantage through the playoffs to one.

"I tried to duplicate a lot of playoff-type situations, as far as what I'd throw to hitters," Smoltz said. "Obviously, if I keep throwing the way I'm throwing I like our chances."

Ending the trip with a 5-1 record, the Braves unloaded a week's worth of offense against a beleaguered pitching staff. Among a collection of 19 hits, Andres Galarraga launched his 44th home run, rookies George Lombard and Wes Helms hit their first homers, and Gerald Williams drove in a pair of runs with his 10th.

"How refreshing it is to see the young kids come up and do well," manager Bobby Cox said.

Improving to 12-1 since the All-Star break with his 17th win, Smoltz continued a recent stretch of dominant pitching by Atlanta's staff. Braves pitchers have allowed only one earned run in their last 37 innings and posted an 0.85 ERA during the trip.

Smoltz's win gave the Braves four 17-game winners for the first time in the major leagues since the Oakland A's did it in 1989.

"Seventeen wins, who would have ever imagined?" Cox said. "He's had a fantastic year. Everything is going right for him. He's ready."

Smoltz, who will start Game 1 of the division series next week, used the five innings to work on all his pitches. He struck out nine of the 17 hitters he faced, didn't issue a walk and the Marlins can attest there wasn't much missing from his performance.

"He's one of the best in baseball and he looks like he's in a groove right now," Florida manager Jim Leyland said.

Smoltz (17-3) looked on top of his game, striking out the side in the first inning and striking out six of the first seven hitters he faced. The only hit he allowed was Dave Berg's fourth-inning single and the only other hitter to reach base was Kevin Orie on Helms' error in the fifth.

Smoltz, 5-0 against the Marlins since July 1996, lowered his earned run average to 2.90. In 42 innings over his last six starts, he has a 1.29 ERA and he's 4-0 this month.

"Tonight was a good tuneup for me," he said. "I felt like every one of my pitches was exactly the way it should be."

Four pitches into the game Marlins starter Kirt Ojala (2-7) trailed 2-0. Ozzie Guillen slapped a single into left field and Williams hit Ojala's first pitch over the left field wall for his 10th homer, his fifth against the Marlins. Galarraga continued the assault with a single, Javy Lopez doubled and Danny Bautista picked up an RBI with a ground ball, giving Smoltz a 3-0 lead.

The game went downhill for Florida's left-hander from there. Galarraga snapped his homerless skid at 14 games in the third with his first home run since Sept. 6, then two more runs crossed the plate in the fifth.

A 6-0 lead was all Cox needed to begin pulling the few regulars he had in the lineup. Galarraga and Andruw Jones took the rest of the night off, yet the lineup continue to crank out runs. Three runs poured across in the sixth as the hit total climbed to 15, then Lombard blasted a 395-foot homer into the right field stands in the eighth.

"We haven't had a game like that in awhile," said third baseman Chipper Jones, who was given the night off. "It's good to have a breather."