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Hero in Mourning Ignites Braves, 5-3


ATLANTA — The initials are etched in his mind forever. He used his bat to etch them in the dirt near home plate Thursday night.

CP for Chris Pickett.

Tony Tarasco, driven by the memory of his late friend, then delivered a pinch-double that may have meant as much to the Atlanta Braves as the improbable home run by John Patterson meant to the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday.

The double ignited a three-run, seventh-inning rally that lifted the Braves to a 5-3 victory in their final game of the season against the Giants.

The Braves trail the division-leading Giants by 3 1/2 games in the National League West, but it might have been 5 1/2.

"That's huge," Manager Bobby Cox said. "It's virtually impossible to make up 5 1/2 in a month against a team of the Giants' caliber, especially when you have to depend on others for help."

The standings were almost secondary to Tarasco, a 22-year-old graduate of Santa Monica High, when he batted for Mark Wohlers with one out in the seventh, the Braves trailing, 3-2.

Almost everything has been since March 23, when Pickett was shot by Los Angeles police, Tarasco said, while fleeing a robbery.

"He was my best friend," Tarasco said. "I went through school with him. I think about him when I get down, and I thought about him when I was the plate tonight.

"I went home for his funeral during spring training and have been putting his initials in the dirt ever since. I've dedicated my career to him, and I was determined to come through for him tonight. It was obviously my biggest hit."

Tarasco spent most of the year playing right field at triple-A Richmond. He was recalled for a second time last week and was four for 16 before he connected against Jeff Brantley.

A single by Otis Nixon scored Tarasco to pull the Braves even at 3-3. Jeff Blauser walked, bringing on Dave Burba. Nixon stole third and scored the go-ahead run when Ron Gant drilled a single off Burba's right cheek as the pitcher pivoted on his follow-through, the ball caroming to catcher Kirk Manwaring 10 feet up the first-base line.

Kevin Rogers replaced Burba and gave up a run-scoring single to Fred McGriff. That was it. The Giants collected only two hits against four Atlanta relievers after Steve Avery had given up three runs and six hits, including Barry Bonds' 40th home run, in only 3 2/3 innings.

It was the Braves' 18th victory in their last 22 games, their fifth in six against the Giants during the last 11 days.

"We did about all we could do," Gant said. "We need help now, but we've given them something to think about."

San Francisco Manager Dusty Baker is paid to think his team still has the advantage. He wouldn't trade, he said. The Braves are now behind him in more ways than one.

"I'm not crazy about going to play the Cardinals in St. Louis," he said, "but it doesn't hurt that Lee Smith isn't there anymore. I mean, no one can match Atlanta's pitching. I'm glad, in that respect, to have these games behind us, though I'd also like to play them over."

What's left? A virtual home-road split for both teams.

The Giants play seven against St. Louis, four each against the Padres, Astros and Dodgers, three each against the Reds and Cubs and two each against the Rockies and Pirates. They are 47-25 against the eight, with losing records against only the Dodgers (3-6) and Cardinals (2-3).

The Braves play seven against San Diego and three each against the Dodgers, Mets, Astros, Reds, Rockies, Phillies and Expos. They are 49-24 against the eight, with a losing record against only the Phillies (4-5).

If there is an advantage, it may rest with the Braves, who have 23 games remaining against the Rockies, Mets and Padres. They are 20-5 against those three.

The Giants, meanwhile, have 11 left against the Dodgers and Cardinals, against whom they are 5-9.

"We're hoping the Phillies and Expos are tough on the Braves, but we have to help ourselves, that's No. 1," Baker said.

Help is near. Catalytic Darren Lewis comes off the disabled list Saturday, and John Burkett, bombed in his three previous tries for victory No. 19, pitched six solid innings Thursday before the heat and his middle relief pitchers deprived him again. So did an unlikely hero in mourning.

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