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Millwood Delivers What Braves Need

National League: Lopez and Castilla hit back-to-back homers in 7-3 victory over Giants, evening series.

October 04, 2002|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — All those numbing Octobers have helped to enlighten the Atlanta Braves, who can sense playoff disaster long before it starts.

The Braves saw another storm on the horizon and at least temporarily changed course Thursday night with a 7-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants in Game 2 of the National League division series.

They rebounded in what players acknowledged was a must-win game before 47,167 at Turner Field, pulling even in the best-of-five series behind six solid innings from starter Kevin Millwood and the hot hitting of Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla.

The Nos. 6 and 7 batters, coming off strong performances in the opener, became only the second tandem in club history to hit consecutive postseason home runs, connecting for solo shots against ineffective Giant starter Kirk Rueter in a three-run second as the Braves jumped ahead, 4-1. Chipper Jones' run-scoring single in the first got everything started and seemed to have a calming effect on the team.

The Braves broke the game open in the fourth and chased Rueter, scoring three runs to take a 7-1 lead, Mark DeRosa cueing a two-run triple just inside the right-field line to land the knockout blow.

That pretty much reduced the game to Barry Bonds against the Braves, with fans sticking around to watch the future Hall of Famer swing his bat.

Bonds struck out and grounded out against Millwood and flied out against reliever Mike Remlinger in the seventh. Closer John Smoltz, working with a five-run cushion in the ninth, challenged Bonds and Bonds won, leading off with a homer to right.

Smoltz struck out the next three batters and Atlanta remained perfect in his last 50 appearances. The Braves could have been on the wrong end of a 2-0 deficit in the short series, but now they're feeling good again with play shifting to Pacific Bell Park for Game 3 on Saturday.

"Today, we knew that this was a must-win game for us," said catcher Lopez, who also homered in Game 1. "We didn't want to go to San Francisco with the series, 2-0. No way did we want that to happen."

The sentiment was unanimous.

"Everybody knows how difficult it is to win ballgames [at Pacific Bell Park], let alone going in there down, 2-0," right fielder Gary Sheffield said.

"Chipper picked us up big time, he put that run on the board and it helped us relax a little bit, and Millwood was throwing outstanding."

Millwood earned his third postseason victory on a night he wasn't initially scheduled to pitch, having swapped places with Greg Maddux because of the four-time Cy Young Award winner's blister problem. The 18-game winner delivered the stabilizing performance the Braves needed, giving up only three hits, including solo homers to J.T. Snow in the second and Rich Aurilia in the sixth.

Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox removed Millwood after 72 pitches because he suffered a slight groin injury while beating Kenny Lofton to the first-base bag in the sixth for an out.

"I didn't get sore from it until after I had come out of the game," the right-hander said. "I started feeling a little bit sore, but nothing that's going to affect anything.

"I felt like I had a little more zip on my fastball. My slider was just a little bit harder, and I thought I threw a couple of curveballs harder than I have all year."

It wasn't a good night for Rueter.

In his previous two career playoff appearances, the left-hander had given up only seven hits and one earned run in 11 1/3 innings. The Braves matched that hit total and scored seven runs (six earned) in only three-plus innings against Rueter.

"It appeared they had a pretty good game plan against Kirk," Giant Manager Dusty Baker said. "Earlier in the go around, it looked like they were taking the first pitch.

"Then Vinny Castilla and [Lopez], they came up swinging at the first pitch, so they sort of changed their game plan in the middle, and Kirk got some balls up."

Lopez and Castilla combined for 826 feet worth of homers in the three-run second. Lopez led off with a 421-foot blast to left-center on a 1-1 count, and Castilla drove Rueter's next pitch over the glove of center fielder Lofton for a 405-foot shot.

Ryan Klesko and Brian Jordan were the only other Atlanta teammates to hit consecutive homers in the playoffs, accomplishing the feat against the New York Mets in Game 4 of the 1999 NL championship series at Shea Stadium.

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