After Giant wait, Braves clinch . . . to pop corks on Atlanta's 3rd straight West title


ATLANTA -- At 4:05 p.m. yesterday, Greg McMichael struck out Darryl Boston to wrap up a 5-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies and enable the Atlanta Braves to win the National League West.

Sort of.

There was no mountain of players on the mound, no jubilant exchange of high-fives, no champagne showers in the clubhouse.

It was another three hours before the Los Angeles Dodgers closed out the San Francisco Giants, 12-1, and the division became Atlanta's alone.

Only then, with the pressure of this great race having suddenly evaporated, with the charter that was going to take the Braves to San Francisco for a playoff game tonight canceled, with the 104th win in the 162nd and last game of the regular season being one more than the Giants, did the corks begin to pop in the Atlanta clubhouse.

"A celebration is a celebration," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said of the delayed flow. "This is great. We were hoping the Dodgers could win one, and the way they did it made the wait less difficult."

A crowd of about 4,000 -- the remnants of yesterday's 48,904 -- stayed to watch the Giants and Dodgers on the center-field screen and enjoyed every moment of the rout, chanting "Go L.A." and responding to each run with the tomahawk chop.

It was a strange end to a dramatic race "that seemed destined to go to a playoff," said David Justice, whose 40th home run helped Tom Glavine win his 22nd game in the victory over the Rockies.

Instead, the Braves will go to Philadelphia for Wednesday night's opener of the National League Championship Series with a third consecutive division title and a chance to become the first NL team to win three straight pennants since the St. Louis Cardinals in 1942-44.

If successful in that, they will then attempt to erase the frustration of the past two World Series.

"We've done this before," a soaked Justice said of the division clinching. "Our job won't be over until we win the Series. Then you'll see emotion."

They will use a rotation of Steve Avery, Greg Maddux, Glavine and John Smoltz against the Phillies.

Relaxed and treating it like any other game, Glavine (22-6) scattered six hits in 6 2/3 innings as the Braves completed a 13-game season sweep of Colorado.

It was the first time an expansion team has ever been swept and the first time a National League team has swept anyone.

"We saved our worst for the Braves," Colorado manager Don Baylor said of a 67-95 season.

Cox, meanwhile, called it the most rewarding of the three consecutive titles "because of the number of games we had to win."

The Braves set a franchise record for wins, were 54-19 after the All-

Star break and won 22 of their last 29 as they outlasted the Giants, who led by 10 on July 22.

Cox said the Braves' three-game sweep at Candlestick Park in late August was pivotal. "We wouldn't be here if the Giants had won even one of those games," he said.

Comparably important was the July 20 arrival of Fred McGriff.

The Braves averaged 5.8 runs their last 68 games and that helped the touted rotation, which had a 2.78 ERA since Aug. 8. "We were a good team before Fred, but getting him was huge," Cox said.

McGriff had one of four singles that produced two runs off former Atlanta prospect David Nied in the third inning yesterday, then Ron Gant tripled in two more.

Justice provided some breathing room with his 40th in the seventh after Colorado closed to 4-3.

McMichael ultimately retired six straight batters for his 19th save, after which the Braves exchanged quiet handshakes, met with the media for 20 minutes, then locked the clubhouse to watch the Dodgers-Giants telecast amid suitcases packed for the flight to San Francisco.

Then the champagne flew, a release from the tension of the past two months.

"Nerve-racking," Cox said of a race in which the feeling was "you couldn't afford to lose and neither of us ever seemed to.

"I mean, the Giants are absolutely deserving of going to the playoffs, but one of us couldn't. It's a shame."

He said that with sincerity, but it was obvious he felt the bigger shame would have been if his Braves were the ones not going.



Wednesday: At Phila., 8:12 p.m.

Starters: Tommy Greene (16-4) for Phillies; Steve Avery (18-6) for Braves

Thursday: At Phila., 8:12 p.m.

Saturday: At Atlanta, 3 p.m.

Oct. 10: At Atlanta, 8:29 p.m.

*Oct. 11: At Atlanta, 3:07 p.m.

*Oct. 13: At Phila., 3:07 p.m. or 8:12 p.m.

*Oct. 14: At Phila., 8:12 p.m.

*-If necessary

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