Thomson starts strong

ATLANTA (AP) -- The Braves are getting ready to celebrate.

Again.

John Thomson pitched seven strong innings, Julio Franco had

three hits and Atlanta reduced its magic number for winning the NL

East to three with a 5-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds on

Tuesday night.

"We've whittled it down to three, thanks to the Phillies and

our own play. Three sounds a lot better than five," manager Bobby

Cox said.

The Braves' victory, coupled with second-place Florida's 4-2

loss to Philadelphia, means Atlanta could clinch its 13th straight

division title as soon as Thursday.

The Marlins trail the Braves by 9½ games.

No one is more excited than Thomson, who is poised to pitch in

the playoffs for the first time in his eight-year career. He's

helped the Braves cope with the loss of Greg Maddux, who was let go

in a salary purge after last season.

"The last five or six years, I had started planning my vacation

already," Thomson said. "A buddy of mine wants me to take a

fishing trip with him, but I told him we're going to have to hold

off on that."

Thomson (13-8) allowed only one run and five hits to win his

third straight start, also setting a season high with nine

strikeouts. He is 7-1 in his last 14 starts.

"He's nasty when he has to be," said John Smoltz, who

struggled in the ninth but held on for his 40th save. "I'm proud

of him. He's never been through anything like this."

Smoltz took care of some personal business, finishing his 57th

game to automatically renew his contract for 2005. He'll make $12

million next season.

"I'm glad that's over," he said. "That's not what I was

pitching for this year."

Smoltz's 150th career save wasn't one of his finest. He retired

the first two hitters in the ninth, then gave up three straight

hits, including Jacob Cruz's RBI single.

After a trip to the mound by pitching coach Leo Mazzone, Smoltz

struck out Felipe Lopez with two on to end it.

Franco singled in his first three at-bats, driving in a run in

the fourth. The 46-year-old first baseman moved up to 91st on the

career hit list with 2,447, passing Mark Grace and Dwight Evans.

"That's very good company," Franco said. "I'm happy that I'm

getting the opportunity to continue playing and reaching the goals

that I've set."

Eddie Perez had two RBI for the Braves, who could have beaten

the Reds much worse. Atlanta left 13 runners on base -- at least one

in each of the first seven innings.

As it was, the Braves outhit Cincinnati 12-9.

Brandon Claussen (2-6) lasted only four innings for the Reds,

giving up seven hits and walking four.

"I gave up a couple of two-out hits, and that came back to

haunt me," Claussen said. "There were times through the four

innings when I couldn't get in a groove mechanically. If some of my

pitches had been an inch lower or an inch higher, things could have

been a lot better."

That's the sign of a young pitcher.

"He got a lot of two-strike counts," Reds manager Dave Miley

said. "He was close to putting them away. He needs to make quality

pitches back to back."

The Braves left the bases loaded in the first, but broke through

in the second. Eli Marrero led off with a single, moved to second

on Rafael Furcal's walk and came home on Marcus Giles' two-out

single to left.

That would be a familiar theme. Perez made it 2-0 in the third

with another two-out hit, singling to center to drive in Franco.

Then it was Franco's turn to come through with two outs, his single

in the fourth bringing home Giles.

The Braves tacked on two more runs in the seventh. Marrero had

an RBI double and Perez hit a sacrifice fly.

Jason LaRue pushed across Cincinnati's first run in the fourth

with a two-out double.

After Thomson left, Chris Reitsma gave up two runs in the

eighth. Sean Casey had a sacrifice fly and Adam Dunn drove in

another run with a groundout.Game notes
The last time Thomson had nine strikeouts was July 17,

2003, with Texas. His career high is 12. ... Cincinnati CF Wily Mo

Pena left in the seventh after straining his right hamstring while

trying to beat out a grounder. He walked off the field slowly and

will return to Cincinnati on Wednesday to get the injury checked

out by the team's medical staff. ... Next up for Franco on the

career hit list: Red Schoendienst at 2,449. "Who?" Franco said.