ATLANTA -- John Smoltz lost a shot at his first no-hitter in the first three innings.
Oh sure, the scorebook will show that Washington's Ronnie Belliard broke it up with a clean single leading off the eighth. But Smoltz looked back at those early innings, when he burned 48 pitches and didn't have enough left at the end to finish the Atlanta Braves' 7-1 win over the Nationals.
"It had a chance to be a magical night," the 40-year-old Smoltz said. "I really felt like it would be. Unfortunately, I ran out of gas."
The only pitcher in baseball history with at least 200 wins and 150 saves, Smoltz had the crowd on its feet when he walked slowly to the mound to begin the eighth. He got ahead in the count 1-2, but Belliard lined the next pitch in front of Jeff Francoeur for a clean single to right.
For a split second, the strong-armed Francoeur actually thought of throwing to first in hopes of getting Belliard. "That would have been pretty cool," the outfielder said, but he had no chance of pulling it off.
Belliard's hit came on Smoltz's 109th -- and final -- pitch of the night. While everyone in the infield came up to congratulate the right-hander, manager Bobby Cox waddled to the mound to make a change.
"I told Bobby, 'As soon as I give up a hit, I'm done,"' the pitcher said.
Smoltz (13-7) walked off to a standing ovation, having struck out 10 and walked two. He wound up being charged with a run as well when pinch-hitter Ryan Church doubled to the gap in left-center off Peter Moylan to bring home Belliard with the Nationals' only other hit.
Belliard came close in the fifth, lining one down the left-field line that was foul by inches. He eventually flied out to center, but caught up with one of Smoltz's dreaded sliders in his next at-bat.
"He got me (behind in the count) and then hung a pitch. You don't expect that pitch in that situation," Belliard said.
Smoltz pitched the only one-hitter of his career in 1999 against Cincinnati, giving up the lone hit in the fifth. The only time he took a no-hitter into the ninth was way back in 1990, when Philadelphia's Lenny Dykstra doubled with two outs to go. Smoltz wound up with a two-hitter in that game.
Seventeen years later, he flirted again with the one missing link in his brilliant career.
"At his age, what he's doing is unbelievable," Francoeur said. "It's fun to watch."
Don't try telling Smoltz that he's never pitched a no-hitter, though. He still bitterly remembers a '96 game at San Diego, in which Ryan Klesko dropped a fly ball at the wall in the seventh inning and Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was credited with a double.
That was the lone hit Smoltz allowed in eight innings, and he's convinced to this day that he would have finished off the ultimate pitching masterpiece if the scorer had ruled differently.
"I don't care what the books say," Smoltz said. "If you ask me if I've pitched a no-hitter, that was it."
Joel Hanrahan (4-3) took the loss, giving up four hits and four earned runs in 3 1/3 innings. But he was an afterthought.
Washington couldn't do anything with Smoltz, who baffled the Nationals by using a slower version of his slider.
"He had it all going tonight," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "He threw a couple of different sliders that I don't think the Nationals have seen yet. He used the slower one to get all his strikeouts."
Chipper Jones hit a three-run homer and the Nationals helped Atlanta's cause with a ghastly display of defense, committing five throwing errors. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman had three of them himself.
Before Belliard's hit, Washington's closest call came with two outs in the seventh when Austin Kearns hit a sharp grounder past third base. Shortstop Yunel Escobar broke into the hole and attempted to field it backhanded at the edge of the dirt, but the ball bounced off his glove.
Escobar picked it up quickly and got off a strong throw to first, but Kearns already had a foot on the bag. After a bit of a delay, official scorer Jack Wilkinson ruled it an error, having watched the replay from a couple of angles.
It appeared to be the right call: Escobar actually had time to set himself before misplaying the ball. Whatever the case, a big cheer went up when a "1" was posted in the error column on the scoreboard, while the hit column remained at "0."
Smoltz set the tone right away. After Nook Logan led off with a groundout, the next two hitters fanned. Smoltz struck out the side in the second -- all of them swinging -- and finished with his third 10-strikeout game of the season and 43rd of his career.
Smoltz made a nice defensive play himself to prevent another hit in the sixth. Logan hit a dribbler to the left of the mound, but the pitcher pounced on it with a barehanded pickup and got the hitter by a step at first.
Washington's defensive woes began in the fourth. Zimmerman threw two balls away, both of them sailing over the head of first baseman Dmitri Young. Catcher Brian Schneider made another errant toss after a wild pitch skidded to the backstop and he hurriedly tried to throw out a runner coming home. Smoltz, who had taken third on the play, scooted home when he saw the ball deflect off Escobar crossing the plate and it wound up near the Braves dugout.
Zimmerman made his third error of the night when he skipped a throw to first into the dirt. Shortstop Felipe Lopez had the other miscue, throwing one into the Braves dugout after field a routine grounder.
"It's embarrassing to make one error," Zimmerman said. "To make three is really embarrassing."
The game was delayed about 10 minutes in the ninth when a fan ran on the field and was tackled by security officers. One of the officers was injured when he landed on his head making the tackle.
He eventually got up, walked to a cart and was taken off the field for the treatment.
- Washington LHP Ross Detwiler became the first member of this year's draft class to make it to the majors. The sixth overall pick in the June draft pitched a scoreless ninth in his big-league debut.
- In addition to making three errors, Zimmerman struck out four times.