Smoltz of old is just like new for Braves Pirates dominated in NL opener, 5-1

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- If last night's opening game of the National League Championship Series between the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates had even remotely resembled the seventh game of last year's championship series, it would have been a classic.

Atlanta pitcher John Smoltz did his part, looking as dominant last night as he did nearly a year ago, shutting down the Pirates in much the same fashion he did in the pennant-clincher last fall, holding them scoreless for eight innings then.

Last night, Smoltz again held the Pirates scoreless, this time for seveninnings, and rode the bats of first baseman Sid Bream and shortstop Jeff Blauser to a 5-1 win over Pittsburgh, giving Atlanta a 1-0 lead in the NL playoffs.

But Pittsburgh's Doug Drabek, who looked nearly immortal last October in Game 7, looked pretty human last night, as did most of the Pirates lineup.

As a result, Danny Jackson (8-13) will need to win today's second game over Atlanta's Steve Avery (11-11) so that Pittsburgh can go home this weekend with a split.

Smoltz, who beat the Pirates for the second time in three postseason games, was brilliant, limiting the National League's third-best hitting attack to just one run on four hits and only seven overall base runners in eight innings.

In all, before Pittsburgh second baseman Jose Lind hit a home run in the eighth, Smoltz had held the Pirates scoreless for 20 consecutive innings, dating to Game 3 of last year's NL playoffs.

Nearly everyone was impressed with Smoltz's stuff but Smoltz himself.

"Believe it or not, I think I've had better [stuff]," Smoltz said. "My fastball really wasn't very good. My slider was working well, and I was able to spot it. Basically, I just let them put the ball in play and let our defense do the rest."

Blauser, who homered in the fifth, said: "He [Smoltz] pitched at a different level. It was fun playing behind him. I wouldn't want to face him when he's pitching like that.

"It just seemed that his fastball was a few miles faster," Blauser said.

That was certainly true enough, but Smoltz also threw particularly nasty breaking stuff as well, his protestations to the contrary.

"Some pitchers can get pumped up all the time. It's hard to think that he [Smoltz] doesn't. In fact, we have to calm him down," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said.

"Sometimes, you just don't get all the breaks. John is concentrating all the time. He just needs to get a break sometimes," Cox said.

"It looked like his command wasn't real good real early, but we couldn't take advantage of that and he settled down and pitched pretty well," Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland said.

The Pirates, making their third straight league championship series appearance and their ninth overall, a league record, hardly looked the part of a postseason savvy ballclub, making fundamental fielding and throwing errors and looking foolish at the plate.

As a result, the Pirates quickly have the weight of history against them, because the winner of the first game of the playoffs has won the series 13 of 23 times.

"I think we know we're going to have to be aggressive, and I think tonight, we were going to get something started and, to their credit, they made a great defensive play," Leyland said. "It certainly helps to have a guy like Smoltz, who was outstanding."

The Pirates could do little right last night, and their stars, Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds, symbolized their futility.

Even when Alex Cole and Jay Bell, the top of the Pittsburgh order, would get on base, Smoltz would clamp down on Van Slyke, who finished second in the National League batting race, and Bonds, who was second in the NL in homers.

Van Slyke and Bonds, who each hit over .300 and combined for 48 home runs and 192 RBI in the regular season, could only jointly muster a weak single and a walk, and are now hitting .164 (18-for-110) in postseason play in their careers.

Likewise, Drabek, who left in the fifth inning, the earliest )R postseason departure of his career, was not up to snuff, giving up five hits -- three for extra bases -- and four runs.

"When Doug is pitching, he's the type of guy you need to get early," said Bream, who went 2-for-4, scored two runs and drove in a run with a double.

"If you do, great. If not, watch out."

NOTES: Smoltz came up one-third of an inning short of tying teammate Steve Avery's NL playoff record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched. Lind's eighth inning home run broke the streak at 16. Avery has a chance to improve his record when he starts Game 2 today. The major-league record is 18 set by Ken Holtzman of Oakland in 1973-74. . . . Smoltz now holds the lowest postseason ERA among active pitchers at 1.43. . . . Lind's home run ended another streak: The Pirates had been held scoreless for 29 straight innings, one shy of the major-league record of 30 set in 1974 by Baltimore against Oakland. . . . Ron Gant's steal of second in the fourth inning gave him nine without being caught in postseason play, breaking Ken Griffey's record of eight. . . . Last night's game was the first NL playoff contest between the Pirates and Braves in which one team was not shut out since Game 4 of last season's playoffs. The Pirates won Game 5, 1-0, and the Braves took Games 6 and 7 by 1-0 and 4-0 scores.

Pirates-Braves scoring Braves second: Justice fouled to catcher LaValliere. Bream singled to center. Gant struck out. Berryhill walked, Bream to second. Lemke singled to second, Bream scored, Berryhill to second. Smoltz struck out. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Braves 1, Pirates 0.

Braves fourth: Justice walked. Bream doubled to left-center, Justice scored. Gant sacrificed to first, Bream to third, and on first baseman Merced's throwing error, Gant safe at first, Bream scored. Berryhill struck out, Gant stole second. Lemke flied to center fielder Van Slyke, Gant to third. Smoltz struck out. 2 runs, 1 hit, 1 error, 1 left on. Braves 3, Pirates 0.

Braves fifth: Nixon flied to center fielder Van Slyke. Blauser FTC homered down the left-field line on 3-2 count. Pendleton grounded to first baseman Merced. Justice doubled to right-center. Patterson relieved Drabek. Bream flied to center fielder Van Slyke. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Braves 4, Pirates 0.

Braves seventh: Nixon singled to shortstop. Nixon stole second. Blauser walked. Belliard ran for Blauser. Pendleton singled to center, Nixon scored, Belliard to second. Neagle relieved Patterson. Justice flied to right fielder Cole. Bream grounded into fielder's choice, first baseman Merced to shortstop Bell, Belliard to third, Pendleton forced at second. Gant popped to shortstop Bell. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Braves 5, Pirates 0.

Pirates eighth: Belliard to shortstop, batting 2nd. Lind homered to left on 2-1 count. Varsho, pinch hitting for Neagle, grounded to second baseman Lemke. Cole flied to right fielder Justice. Bell grounded to third baseman Pendleton. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Braves 5, Pirates 1.

NL playoffs

& Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves (Braves lead, 1-0) TV: Channels 11, 9

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

Last night: Braves 5, Pirates 1

Today: at Atlanta, 3:07

Friday: at Pittsburgh, 8:37

Saturday: at Pittsburgh, 8:37

Sunday: at Pittsburgh, 8:37*

Tuesday: at Atlanta, 8:37*

Wednesday: at Atlanta, 8:26*

(*-if necessary)

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