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Braves Keep Pressure on Giants, 5-3


SAN FRANCISCO — The calendar and the standings equate to a hard reality for the Atlanta Braves. One thing about the National League West race isn't going to change, they fear.

"People kept saying that the Giants are bound to slump at some point, but that's become a myth," Atlanta relief pitcher Jay Howell, the former Dodger, said Monday night before the Braves defeated San Francisco, 5-3.

"If you could point to one weakness, it would be different, but they don't really have one. They're tough, they're focused, they're up for every game.

"I mean, it's almost ridiculous to play to as big a percentage as they have. It's almost ridiculous to play as well as we have and pick up only a couple games. It's been very frustrating."

Putting that frustration aside, the Braves have refused to fold, Howell said. They, too, have remained focused--on their jobs and the scoreboard.

"The Giants play so many day games that we've had to go out there almost every night knowing they've already won," he said, forcing a laugh. "Who thought up this bleeping schedule?"

The schedule finally brought the Braves and Giants together Monday night, and the postseason-toughened Braves did what they had to do, what some would say they must do in each of six games they'll play against the Giants during the next 10 days.

They took a 4-0 lead and held on behind Steve Avery.

The victory improved their major league-best record since the All-Star break to 27-10 and was their 12th in 14 games. Despite that formidable pace, however, they still trail the relentless Giants by 6 1/2 games.

With 38 left, the Giants have won 18 of their last 26 games and 31 of their last 46, but they lacked their 1993 magic in this one, to the chagrin of a Candlestick Park crowd of 53,282, which swelled the season total to a franchise-record 2,073,500.

Avery scattered eight hits as he improved his record to 14-4 and enabled the Braves to become 20-2 in his last 22 starts.

The Giants lead the league in team batting and are second in virtually every other offensive category, but Avery is 3-0 against them in '93, and he retired the last 11 batters in order after the Giants scored their three runs in the fifth.

Though Avery pumped his fist exultantly after the final out, the Braves weren't going to say one victory or one loss would change the course of the race. They weren't going to say this is a last gasp and that they have to sweep these six games with the Giants.

"It doesn't help us to say we have to win four of the six or five of the six," Howell said. "We have to play as hard as we can in every one. Project too much and you lose sight of that."

Said Ron Gant, the Atlanta left fielder: "We've been trying so hard not to think about the Giants that we knew we couldn't overlook anybody. Now's our chance to make it up directly.

"We don't have to pull for the Pirates or the Marlins or anybody. It's our chance. It's urgent."

Gant and the Braves responded to the urgency, scoring three runs in the second inning against Trevor Wilson, who left after only four innings because of inflammation of his left shoulder. He was later put on the disabled list for the third time this season, and the Giants recalled Salomon Torres from their Phoenix farm club.

Along with the elbow injury that has put starter Bud Black on the disabled list, it's a disturbing development for the Giants.

Wilson gave up three hits in the three-run second. The Braves made it 4-0 against Dave Burba in the fifth, but the Giants got three back in the home half, the big hit a two-run homer by Robby Thompson, who has homered in each of the last four games and has a total of 15 in an All-Star season.

It was still 4-3 in the ninth when Jeff Blauser hit his 14th homer.

Giant Manager Dusty Baker expressed concern over Wilson later, but, like the Braves, said one victory or loss wasn't going to change the flow of a race his team has dominated.

"It's a race until everybody is mathematically eliminated," he said. "The one thing we wanted to do is separate the division as soon as possible, which we've done. It's down to Atlanta and us. Now we'll try to keep it from getting closer."

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