Braves take a step in wrong direction Pirates turn breaks into 1-0 victory for 3-2 series edge


ATLANTA -- All the key breaks went the Pittsburgh Pirates' way yesterday, but it may be the Atlanta Braves who wind up fractured.

In a game of tense drama, unusual twists and dual offensive frustrations, the Pirates took control of the National League Championship Series with a 1-0 victory, their second straight triumph at a park where they hadn't won all season until Sunday night.

The Braves, down 3-2 in the series, face the prospect of having to sweep two games at Three Rivers Stadium, where play resumes tomorrow night.

Defeats don't come much more demoralizing than this one.

One Atlanta run was overturned when David Justice was ruled out for missing third base on the way home during a bizarre fourth inning.

Earlier, losing pitcher Tom Glavine botched a suicide-squeeze attempt with one out and the bases loaded, the resultant strikeout and double play ending the rally.

And Brian Hunter was guilty of batter's interference moments before Justice was caught, further defusing that scoring opportunity.

Pittsburgh got a run off Glavine on a run-scoring single by Jose Lind in the fifth, but it was the runs Atlanta didn't score that counted most.

In the second, Hunter singled, Greg Olson walked and Mark Lemke singled to load the bases. After Rafael Belliard struck out, Glavine worked the count to 2-2 against Zane Smith.

With Pirates-killer Lonnie Smith (.462 during the regular season) in the on-deck circle, the Braves tried a suicide squeeze. Glavine missed the sign and the ball, and Hunter was hung up.

"Tail-end of the order, and Tommy Glavine's probably the best bunter in baseball," Braves manager Bobby Cox said in explaining his decision. "Zane Smith is a control pitcher; the count went 2-2. Perfect time to do it. Tommy missed the sign. He saw Hunter coming, but it was too late."

Glavine confirmed that he "saw the runner coming, so I tried to bunt it." The pitch was a sinker down and away. He had no chance.

That was only the beginning. The bottom of the fourth started when Justice reached on Gary Redus' two-base throwing error, a flick from close range at Smith's feet.

But Hunter, the next batter, topped a ball just in front of the plate. He bumped into catcher Don Slaught and was immediately called out by plate umpire Bob Davidson.

The umpiring crew issued a statement that said: ". . . he [Hunter] moved out in front of the plate and stood there. Then he didn't make an attempt to run and they collided. If he stays in the batter's box or tries to go to first base, then that's something else."

Hunter went back to the bench to watch Cox argue that "he was actually in the batter's box. It looked like he took a step and the ball either hit behind home plate or somewhere in that area and bounced forward. Then he took off."

With Justice still at second, Olson then hit a sinking liner that Andy Van Slyke caught inches from the ground. Olson thought the ball was trapped; Cox didn't. "Van Slyke caught the ball for me. I didn't think there was any doubt," he said.

Then came the topper. Lemke singled to left field and Justice appeared to score the game's first run as Barry Bonds' throw home was slightly off target.

But on what is ruled a "continuation play," Jay Bell yelled for the ball from Slaught, got it from Smith and tagged third. Umpire Frank Pulli immediately flashed the out sign.

"It was very, very obvious," Pulli said, referring to Justice missing the bag. "Very simple. End of story."

The joint umpires' comments added that ". . . he went around third, held up, then broke. He had a thought in his mind that he had missed third base. That was a tip-off right there, when he stumbled, took a step back toward third and then broke for home."

Other testimony was conflicting. Justice said he "felt my spikes scrape the bag. But I was off stride and dragged my foot, and all those things made it appear that I missed it."

Bell was watching diligently from close by. "The thing that made me notice was that he stumbled right before the bag," said Bell. "I've seen that play before, from the offensive side."

Those plays were the most graphic of the Braves' troubles on a day when Smith, a loser to Steve Avery in Game 2, finished on the other end of a 1-0 decision.

Atlanta also had runners to third in the fifth, eighth and ninth and could not capitalize. Terry Pendleton's triple with two out in the eighth finished Smith, but Roger Mason gained the save by weathering a ninth-inning jam.

Glavine weathered difficulty as well, leaving Bobby Bonilla stranded at third in the second inning and Bell at third in the eighth.

But the Pirates' offensive woes were a matter of an inability to produce a clutch hit, not the double ogre of that problem -- and strange twists of fate.

They are one win away from their third pennant title in eight trips to the playoffs. The last was in 1979, when they went on to beat the Baltimore Orioles in a seven-game World Series.

They spell the reason D-E-F-E-N-S-E.

"I would say we've won the last two games [3-2 in 10 innings Sunday night] defensively," said Van Slyke. Said Smith: "It's one of the keys to our club."

A little luck didn't hurt yesterday. The Braves had some too, and all of it was bad.

NL playoffs

(Pirates lead, 3-2)

Game 1 -- Pittsburgh 5, Atlanta 1

Game 2 -- Atlanta 1, Pittsburgh 0

Game 3 -- Atlanta 10, Pittsburgh 3

Game 4 -- Pittsburgh 3, Atlanta 2

Yesterday -- Pittsburgh 1, Atlanta 0

Tomorrow -- Atlanta (Avery 18-8) at Pittsburgh (Drabek 15-14), 8:37 p.m.

Thursday -- at Pittsburgh, 8:37p.m.*

* -- if necessary

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