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It's Business as Usual for Braves

Smoltz pitches seven-plus innings and Rocker closes out 7-5 victory over Astros as Atlanta clinches division series.


HOUSTON — The Atlanta Braves repeatedly rebounded from numbing setbacks this season while earning another division championship.

Apparently, the well isn't dry.

Adding another chapter to their decade-long National League success story, the Braves outlasted the Houston Astros, 7-5, Saturday afternoon for a division-series-clinching victory before 48,553 in the Astros' final game at the Astrodome.

"You know, we've been very fortunate," said Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox, whose team is 15-2 in five division series. "We've had a good club for a long time, and when the season starts, this is what you talk about."

The Braves' actions speak loudly.

They won the series, 3-1, after losing a division-series opener for the first time.

Starter John Smoltz pitched seven-plus solid innings Saturday and the Braves took command with a five-run sixth while chasing Astro starter Shane Reynolds and taking a 7-0 lead.

As it turned out, the Braves needed the cushion.

The Astros rallied, cutting the deficit to 7-5 with a four-run eighth--the big blow Ken Caminiti's three-run home run against Smoltz. Caminiti batted .471 with three homers and eight runs batted in against the Braves.

Houston had a runner on second base in the ninth with none out and its Nos. 3, 4 and 5 batters waiting to face Atlanta left-hander John Rocker, who had entered the game with two out in the eighth and struck out Craig Biggio swinging with a runner on third.

In the ninth, Rocker struck out Jeff Bagwell and Carl Everett swinging. Caminiti hit a fly ball to center field to end the series.

Rocker, who earned a save, also escaped a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the 10th inning Friday.

Atlanta now prepares for its annual appearance in the league championship series, reaching this point eight consecutive seasons, not including the 1994 strike year.

The NL East champions will play host to the the wild-card New York Mets, runners-up in the division. Game 1 is scheduled Tuesday night at Turner Field.

The Braves lost several key players before and during the season because of illness and injuries, including all-star first baseman Andres Galarraga, who was stricken by cancer in spring training. They overcame early pitching problems and withstood the Mets' late-season challenge, absorbing powerful blows and moving forward.

The road to the championship series was much bumpier this time, but the resilient Braves remained on course.

"The thing people don't understand about this team is the focus and the commitment everyone has to win," said Atlanta right fielder and cleanup batter Brian Jordan, who joined the Braves as a free agent during the off-season. "From management down to the players, everyone has that same feeling about what's important and what's needed to get the job done.

"Once we lost Cat [Galarraga] and [catcher] Javy [Lopez], I was a little worried because my job was going to get harder. But that's the thing about this team. No matter how many obstacles we had, we always found a way. Somebody always stepped up and helped, and that's the true test of a winner."

Typically, Smoltz helped in a big way Saturday.

The major leagues' all-time leader in postseason victories was in strong form throughout most of his outing.

Smoltz made a mistake in the eighth and Caminiti capitalized, but he provided a boost through six shutout innings and earned his 12th playoff victory in his 24th start.

"Smoltzy was strong today," Cox said of the 1996 Cy Young Award winner.

"He didn't lose it [his command] at all [in the eighth], it's just hard to contain that team as many innings that we've done that. You know they've got to explode sometime."

Smoltz, working effectively despite chronic elbow pain the last two seasons, provided exactly what Cox figured he would.

Smoltz's Astro counterpart had problems from the outset.

Reynolds earned the victory in the series opener and was working on three days' rest. The right-hander gave up nine hits and Houston Manager Larry Dierker removed him after the Braves' first two batters in the sixth singled to put runners on the corners.

Two pitchers later, the Braves had extended a 2-0 lead into a 7-0 advantage on five more hits and an error, sending 10 batters to the plate.

It appeared the Astros were emotionally zapped after an intense 5-3, 12-inning loss Friday.

They weren't.

But they didn't have enough to complete a comeback.

"[Friday's] game in general, the two bases-loaded situations, and then to give up those [two] runs [in the 12th], was the greatest frustration and the biggest turning point [of the series]," said Dierker, whose team moves into Enron Field next season. "I think the tension and the pressure in [Friday's] game was so great, that even with the comeback [Saturday], I didn't have the same feeling [about the Astros winning]."


NLCS Schedule

New York Mets vs. Atlanta Braves in best-of-seven series. All games on Channel 4.

* GAME 1: Tuesday, at Atlanta, 5 p.m.

* GAME 2: Wednesday, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.

* GAME 3: Friday, at New York, 5 p.m.

* GAME 4: Saturday, at New York, 4:30 p.m.

* GAME 5: Oct. 17, at New York, 1 p.m.*

* GAME 6: Oct. 19, at Atlanta, 5 p.m.*

* GAME 7: Oct. 20, at Atlanta, 5 p.m.*

Times PDT. * if necessary

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