Klesko, Braves Slam Cubs 7-1

Members of several civil rights organizations including People For the American Way and American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey demonstrate against the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel Alito outside the Essex County Courthouse in Newark, N.J., Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006. The group called on New Jersey's U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez to oppose Alito's confirmation.
AP

John Smoltz once fretted about finishing the season. Now he's part of baseball history.

Smoltz became the winningest postseason pitcher Wednesday, allowing just five hits in 7 2/3 innings as the Atlanta Braves cruised to a 7-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the NL division series.

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  • He's now 11-3 in 21 postseason starts, breaking the record for wins shared with Whitey Ford and Dave Stewart.

    "It means a lot to me," Smoltz said. "It's the product behind me that allowed this to happen. It's a team and organization thing more than an individual thing."

    Smoltz was 17-3 and had the best winning percentage in the majors during the regular season -- a remarkable performance considering he had elbow surgery in December and went on the disabled list twice early in the season.

    "Many times this season I was thinking I wouldn't be able to make my next start," Smoltz said.

    Matt Karchner
    The Cubs magi might be running out. (AP)

    Michael Tucker got things going for the Braves with a two-run homer and Ryan Klesko turned the game into a rout with a grand slam. But with Smoltz on the mound, Atlanta didn't need all those runs.

    The Cubs, weary from a three-team wild-card race and forced to win a one-game playoff against San Francisco on Monday, were in a full-scale letdown mode, going down meekly in their first playoff game since 1989.

    "It wasn't discouraging. We just didn't get anything going," Chicago third baseman Gary Gaetti said. "I can't put my finger on it, but it was a weird atmosphere. It was not a playoff atmosphere. The crowd was quiet and it was a gray kind of day."

    The playoffs have become so blase in Atlanta that Game 1 drew only 45,598 -- about 4,000 short of sellout at Turner Field. There were large sections of empty blue seats in the upper deck on a cloudy day, the fans sending the message they won't get serious until the Braves are in their fifth World Series of the 1990s.

    "People just expect us to play in the World Series," Smoltz said. "It's not as easy as people think."

    Tucker, who had just two home runs in the past three months and was dropped to eighth in the batting order, got the offense going with a two-run homer in the second.

    "That was the big point of the game," he said. "We wanted to score first and put the pressure on them."

    Klesko made it 7-0 with his seventh-inning grand slam. By then, it was apparent the regular season didn't mean much.

    The Cubs had more success against the Braves than any NL team, winning six of nine games. But the postseason is more familiar to Atlanta, which has won an unprecedented seven straight division titles.

    "They've been there a lot of times," Sammy Sosa said. "For us, maybe the difference was this was our first time."

    Sosa, cheered each time he came to the plate, couldn't add to the 66 homers he hit during the regular season, although he went 2-for-4.

    Smoltz was picked to begin the best-of-5 series based on his playoff success and a 12-1 record in the second half of the season. The Braves pitching is so deep they have 20-game winner Tom Glavine and four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux ready to go in the next two games.

    Through the first seven innings, Smoltz allowed only one runner past first -- Sosa on a seventh-inning double. Tyler Houston led off the eighth with a homer to end the shutout, and Smoltz lefto a thunderous ovation after getting the next two outs.

    Mark Clark, a stopgap starter for the Cubs who went 9-14 during the season, pitched respectably in his first playoff appearance, pitching into the seventh and allowing two earned runs on seven hits. But respectable isn't good enough when going against Smoltz in the postseason.

    Atlanta got going with the surprising home run from Tucker, who hit a disappointing .244 and had only one homer after Aug. 9.

    In the second inning, Clark retired the first two hitters before Jose Hernandez bobbled Andruw Jones' grounder for an error. That turned out to be a critical mistake. Tucker worked the count to 3-2 before hitting a fastball into the right-field seats.

    The Braves added another run in the sixth on Jones' sacrifice fly, then blew it open in the seventh. After three walks loaded the bases, Klesko hit a 3-2 pitch from Matt Karchner into the right-field stands.

    At least Chicago was able to rest Terry Mulholland and Rod Beck, who had performed ironman duties in the previous two games. Felix Heredia, Karchner and Mike Morgan worked in relief.

    Notes

  • Klesko has hit three division series homers in his career.
  • The Braves improved their overall division series record to 10-1 since the format began in 1995.
  • The Cubs haven't won a postseason series since the 1908 World Series.
  • Chicago activated Kerry Wood , who hasn't pitched since Aug. 31 because of a strained elbow ligament. The 21-year-old righty is expected to start in Game 3 at Wrigley Field.
  • Atlanta had played 72 postseason games since the Cubs made their last playoff appearance.
  • Braves broadcaster Don Sutton, inducted into the Hall of Fame this year, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
  • Chicago's Jeff Blauser , who played with the Braves from 1987-97, pinch-hit in the eighth, flying out to left.
  • The pitching matchup for Game 2 Thursday: Atlanta's Tom Glavine (20-6) vs. Chicago's Kevin Tapani (19-9).

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