WASHINGTON -- John Smoltz figured he was in for another tough-luck loss, with his Atlanta Braves trailing by two runs with two outs in the eighth inning.
After all, the 1996 NL Cy Young award winner has been getting little run support, and the Washington Nationals' bullpen has been outstanding.
Much to Smoltz's surprise and delight, late lineup addition Wilson Betemit hit a tying two-run homer and Marcus Giles capped the rally with an RBI single, lifting the Braves past the Nationals 5-4 Wednesday night.
"When you're going through something like this, it feels like everything's going against you," Smoltz said. "With two outs, who would've thought that we could score some runs?"
The Nationals led 4-2 heading into the eighth; they entered the day 21-2 in games they led after seven. And they had won three in a row -- each by one run.
But they paid for having to juggle their usual late-inning relief corps. Closer Chad Cordero had the night off after pitching four consecutive days, and setup man Gary Majewski was told to rest after working three days in a row.
"Those guys can only do so much," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "You run them into the ground in April, May, first day of June, they're not going to be there for you in July and August."
So the game was in the hands of other relievers, with setup man Luis Ayala held in reserve to try to close. Still, it started out OK, as Hector Carrasco (1-1) retired his first five batters after replacing Tony Armas to begin the seventh.
But with two outs in the eighth, Carrasco gave up a double to Ryan Langerhans. After catcher Brian Schneider went to talk to Carrasco, Betemit drove a hanging slider into the visiting bullpen -- just beyond the glove of a leaping Jose Guillen to tie it at 4-4.
"He goes to the wall, and I think he's got it," Betemit said, "so I keep on running."
Eventually, he was able to slow to a trot on his second homer of the season. Betemit played because shortstop Rafael Furcal was a last-minute scratch with a sore right shoulder. Braves manager Bobby Cox said he didn't think Furcal, who had started every game this season, will play Thursday.
Carrasco walked pinch-hitter Julio Franco, and the 46-year-old was lifted for pinch-runner Pete Orr, a rookie who promptly stole second base on a pitchout. T.J. Tucker replaced Carrasco and gave up Giles' single to shallow left field, scoring Orr.
"They've done their job all year long," said Washington outfielder Ryan Church, who hit two doubles and scored twice. "It's just tough to swallow, especially when you have a two-run lead."
It made a winner of Smoltz (4-4), who gave up four runs over seven innings on six hits, four walks and a wild pitch. In his first season back in the rotation after excelling as a closer, Smoltz entered Wednesday getting just 2.6 runs of support per outing -- more than a run less than any other Atlanta starter.
"The only thing that was going through my mind was to try to get that win for Smoltzy. He's worked so hard all year like the warrior he is," said Chris Reitsma, who recorded the final six outs to earn his second save.
Atlanta had dropped four of five games, and Smoltz said: "We have been typically finding a way to lose."
Counterpart Armas gave up two runs on six hits over six innings, putting men on base in every inning but the first. He allowed Johnny Estrada's homer in the second, and Adam LaRoche's broken-bat RBI single to shallow center in the third.
The Nationals led 3-1, then made it 4-2 in the sixth. After Church doubled, Smoltz intentionally walked Schneider to get to Cristian Guzman, who came into the game batting .183. But the shortstop came through, hitting a single that dropped just in front of center fielder Andruw Jones to score Church.
Before Wednesday, Washington was 11-6 in one-run games, and five of its last six wins were by that slimmest of margins. Because the Florida Marlins lost 9-1 to Pittsburgh, a Nationals victory would have moved them within a half-game of first. Instead, they stay 2½ behind Atlanta.
"We definitely want to send a message to the rest of the NL East," Church said, "that we're here to stay."
For the third consecutive game, Robinson spoke to an umpire about Jones' front foot stepping out of the batter's box when he swings the bat -- but didn't get the reception he wanted. "The evidence is right there in front of them. They just said they can't see it so they can't call it," Robinson said.