Originally created 06/30/03

Pitching keeps Atlanta on top



ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - If Sunday afternoon's 2-0 victory for the Atlanta Bravesover the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had come in October, it would have been considered a game for the ages.

In this case, manager Bobby Cox was more than happy to excuse Russ Ortiz just four outs from his first career shutout, calling in closer John Smoltz to assist in Atlanta's first shutout since April 7.

"When you've got Smoltz out there with a one-run lead, it's difficult not to use him when he's had four days rest," Cox said.

Ortiz became the third 10-game winner in the National League and remained in contention for his first All-Star selection. After allowing back-to-back walks and Al Martin's single with two outs in the first, the 29-year-old right-hander set down 20 of the next 22 batters.

"I think that's the best the ball has felt in my hand," said Ortiz, who gave up three hits and two walks. "No matter what pitch I threw, everything felt the same. I was able to pretty much keep the ball down and hit my spots."

Ortiz entered the eighth inning with just 83 pitches. After coaxing an infield tapper from Marlon Anderson to start the home half of the eighth and inducing a harmless fly from Javier Valentin, Ortiz gave up an infield hit to Antonio Perez, who barely beat second baseman Marcus Giles' throw.

That brought Cox from the dugout, and a surprised Ortiz handed him the ball.

"Of course I wanted to stay in there," Ortiz said. "I figured I'd get at least one more hitter. But who am I to argue when you've got the best closer in the game coming in for you?"

Giles, meanwhile, manufactured a run in the sixth when he was hit by starter Jorge Sosa's pitch. Gary Sheffield drew a walk and, one out later, Andruw Jones delivered a soft single to center, sending in Giles.

In the ninth, Andruw Jones was hit by reliever Travis Harper's fastball and scooted to second when Robert Fick rolled a single through the right side. Lopez's single brought home Jones, with an extra run that made Smoltz's job easier in the ninth.

Smoltz faced the potential tying run after issuing a two-out walk to Ben Grieve in the ninth but retired Al Martin on a hard comeback grounder.

"If we play like this the rest of the year we are going to win some games," Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella said. "We just didn't score any runs today. What can you do? They ran some pretty good pitchers out there."

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.