ATLANTA -- Darin Erstad excels at contact sports -- including baseball.
A punter at Nebraska and a high school hockey star in North Dakota, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Erstad barreled over catcher Johnny Estrada to score on Garret Anderson's go-ahead double Monday night, leading the Los Angeles Angels to a 4-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves in the first meeting between the teams.
Erstad planted his left shoulder into Estrada's facemask in a violent home-plate collision in the eighth inning, giving Los Angeles the lead and sending Estrada to the hospital.
"There is no intent to injure at all there," Erstad said. "I just hope he's OK."
Atlanta's John Smoltz retired his first 14 batters and carried a 2-1 lead into the eighth, but the Angels put runners at the corners with one out.
Anderson's drive to right drove in Chone Figgins from third and Erstad, who scored from first base by knocking the ball from Estrada's grasp.
Estrada caught second baseman Marcus Giles' relay throw at the plate, but Erstad, who helped Nebraska win the 1994 national championship, delivered a shoulder-first blow, knocking the ball loose while also knocking off Estrada's helmet.
While a groggy Estrada reached for the ball, Erstad reached back to tag the plate for a 3-2 Angels lead.
Estrada clutched his head before receiving attention from Braves trainer Jeff Porter. He and assistant trainer Jim Lovell helped Estrada off the field.
Estrada was conscious but was taken to Piedmont Hospital to be examined for a possible concussion and neck injury.
Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia defended the play, saying, "It's baseball."
"Erstad had to make a decision to either slide or to try to get through the block," Scioscia said. "It's a clean play. Our thoughts are with Johnny. We hope he's all right."
Some Braves players objected to Erstad hitting Estrada's head instead of his body, or possibly sliding for the plate.
"It depends on what you guys call clean," first baseman Julio Franco said. "I played against Erstad, and his mentality is not my mentality. He plays the game like a football player.
"The only thing I see is, I don't mind the hit, I mind the location of the hit. He could have hit lower, that's fine with me. Hitting a guy like that, in his face, could cause major damage to his health."
Erstad had an open cut on his left shoulder that was still bleeding after the game.
Braves manager Bobby Cox said Estrada "could get up off the ground, which is a real good sign. So maybe nothing's wrong with his neck and his head. It snapped his head pretty good. He got hit high. It was going to be a close play."
As a groggy Estrada was attended to by Braves trainers, some Braves players yelled and pointed across the field at Erstad.
"You can analyze it all day long," Erstad said. "There are different ways to do it. I made a decision. I hope he's OK."
With Smoltz (4-5) still in the game after Anderson's double, Dallas McPherson followed with a single to drive in Anderson, pushing the lead to 4-2.
Smoltz allowed four runs and 13 hits in 8 1/3 innings, striking out five.
The Braves, who placed third baseman Chipper Jones on the 15-day disabled list Monday with a sore foot, can't afford to lose Estrada, the team's cleanup hitter. Jones will have more tests Tuesday to determine the severity of his injury, which has plagued him since late April.
Jones aggravated the injury Sunday in Pittsburgh, and the team also placed starting pitcher Mike Hampton on the disabled list last week.
The increasingly young Atlanta roster now includes eight rookies, including three who started in the first meeting between the Braves and Angels: outfielders Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson, and third baseman Wilson Betemit, who started for Jones.
Another young Braves starter, 25-year-old first baseman Adam LaRoche, hit a two-run homer off Lackey in the fourth for a 2-0 lead.
Lackey pitched six innings, giving up seven hits and two runs.
A balk helped set up the Angels' first run in the sixth. With two outs, Steve Finley doubled and advanced to third when second-base umpire Brian Runge called the balk on Smoltz, who argued the call.
Anderson drove in Finley with a single off the glove of a diving Furcal behind second base.
- Angels catcher Bengie Molina was thrown out attempting to steal second after a leadoff single in the seventh.
- Furcal stole his NL-leading 21st base in the third.