With each passing day, the Atlanta Braves bullpen looks more like a strength than a question mark.
John Smoltz pitched well enough for his seventh win in a row, but it was the bullpen that dominated Friday night as the Braves maintained their hold on the National League's top record with a 5-4 victory over the San Diego Padres.
Rookie John Rocker came on with one out in the seventh and threw one pitch, getting Steve Finley to hit into a double play with two runners on.
Rudy Seanez struck out the side in the eighth and Kerry Ligtenberg went 1-2-3 in the ninth for his 21st save. Atlanta's new closer has not allowed an earned run in 19 games.
"The bullpen was picture perfect," manager Bobby Cox said. "If you could draw it up like that all the time, you'd never lose a game."
Cox, whose bullpen has fallen into place despite the mysterious woes of former closer Mark Wohlers, watched on television earlier in the day as San Francisco's Robb Nen squandered a ninth-inning lead and lost to the Cubs 6-5.
"Some games were blown today by big-name relief pitchers," said Cox, a tinge of satisfaction in his voice. "(Ligtenberg) is just plodding along and doing a fine job."
Ligtenberg breezed through the ninth, getting a couple of pop-ups before striking out Chris Gomez to end the game. In a rare bit of emotion, Ligtenberg pumped his fist in his glove after the final out, his confidence clearly growing with every pitch.
"I don't feel a lot of pressure," said the soft-spoken Ligtenberg, who was pitching n the independent Prairie League just three years ago. "No one expected me to be here."
By splitting the two-game series, the Braves pushed their lead over the Padres back to two games in a race that could be significant in October. For the first time, the team with the best record is assured of home-field advantage throughout the league playoffs.
"We match up well against each other," San Diego manager Bruce Bochy said. "Both teams have good pitching, and we played two tight games (San Diego won 2-0 Thursday night). It was two good teams going at it."
Smoltz (12-2) fell behind 3-0 in the first inning but bounced back to retire 11 in a row before tiring in the seventh. The right-hander, who hasn't lost since June 26 despite an ailing elbow, allowed eight hits and four walks but struck out eight.
When asked how his elbow felt, Smoltz said, "I can't lie. It hasn't been great. I'm just trying to make good pitches and keep us in the game as long as I can."
Andres Galarraga spurred the Atlanta comeback with his 39th homer, and the Braves went ahead for good with three runs in the fourth, wiping out a 4-2 deficit.
Javy Lopez led off with a single and scored on Michael Tucker's triple to the gap in right-center. Andruw Jones followed with an RBI single, moved to second on Smoltz's sacrifice bunt and scored the go-ahead run on Walt Weiss' single up the middle.
Greg Vaughn drove in three runs for the Padres, leaving him one shy of the second 100-RBI season of his career.
For the third consecutive game, Atlanta fell behind in the opening inning. Smoltz allowed three consecutive two-out hits, including a two-run double by Vaughn and an RBI single to Mark Sweeney.
Joey Hamilton (10-11) retired the first two hitters in the bottom of the first before walking Chipper Jones. Then, on a 3-1 pitch, Galarraga sent a towering drive over the center-field wall to cut the Padres lead to a run. As the Big Cat circled the bases, Hamilton stormed around behind the mound, cursing himself for letting the Braves get right back in the game.
"I was given a nice lead, and I didn't do my job," said Hamilton, who worked six innings, giving up all five runs on seven hits and four walks. "But these guys aren't chopped liver. They're a pretty good ballclub."
Sweeney made two spectacular catches in right field. He reached above the wall to take away a homer from Tucker in the sixth, then made a running grab at the warning track on Ryan Klesko's liner to the gap in the eighth.
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