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Braves' two swings deck Mets; Pair of 2-run HRs in 6th lifts Atlanta to 4-3 win, 2-0 advantage in series

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves kept pecking away at Kenny Rogers yesterday. Kept trying to open holes in him, only to find they couldn't make a dent. Kept meeting resistance where there should have been reward.

It finally came in the sixth inning. Two swings, from Brian Jordan and Eddie Perez, drove Rogers from Game 2 of the National League Championship Series and pushed the New York Mets closer to elimination.

Jordan, who spurned the Orioles this winter to sign with Atlanta, hit a two-run shot off the foul pole in right field to tie the score. After a single, Perez launched a two-run homer to left, giving starter Kevin Millwood and two relievers all the support they needed in a 4-3 victory over the Mets before 44,624 at Turner Field.

On a day when Mets left fielder Rickey Henderson was stricken so badly with an illness that he had to leave the game, his team looked as though it would get healthy. The Mets scored once in the second inning and again in the fifth when Melvin Mora, who had replaced Henderson, became the seventh player to homer in his first NLCS at-bat.

The series shifts to New York tomorrow. The momentum already seemed to be in motion. But Rogers came apart in the sixth.

Mets manager Bobby Valentine, whose Nos. 3-5 hitters are 1-for-21 in the series, said he came "real close" to making a pitching change after Jordan's homer. "I should have done it. No doubt about that. I had no reason to keep him in, and it was absolutely the wrong move.

"I'm not sure the pitch to Jordan was a bad one. It looked like a changeup that he went with and hit the side of the foul pole. The pitch to Perez was a changeup that cut into him instead of going away from him. That was not a very good pitch."

Millwood retired eight in a row after Mora's homer, a streak that was broken when Chipper Jones committed his second error of the series with one out in the eighth inning. It proved costly when Edgar Alfonzo doubled into left-center field, scoring Mora to reduce the Braves' lead to 4-3.

Left-hander John Rocker was summoned, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his patented sprint from the bullpen. He struck out John Olerud for the second time in two games, then walked Mike Piazza intentionally with two outs to put the go-ahead run on base. Unconventional, except that the next hitter, Robin Ventura, had struck out in all four career at-bats against Rocker.

Make it five.

"I never liked to do that too much," said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and give it a go and throw it all out on the table and try it."

John Smoltz, the Braves' scheduled starter for Game 4, entered in the ninth after Shawon Dunston was announced as a pinch hitter. He got the last three outs with ease, blowing a 97 mph fastball by Bobby Bonilla to end the game.

Perhaps it was an omen when Henderson walked off the field in the second inning with an upset stomach and dizziness. The Mets would end up feeling much worse.

The Braves put at least one runner on base in every inning except the eighth, when they went down in order against former Oriole Armando Benitez. They began tormenting Rogers in the first, getting a leadoff single from Gerald Williams, who was picked off. They got a one-out single in the second from Andruw Jones, who also was picked off. The next two batters reached on a single and walk, but Walt Weiss was retired on a tapper to the mound.

Rogers committed the ultimate pitching sin by walking Millwood to open the third. He fell behind 3-0 to Williams, but silenced the crowd by getting a double-play grounder. Bret Boone singled, but Chipper Jones struck out looking.

Three innings. Six base runners. No runs.

Something had to give.

The foundation began to shake again in the fourth when Andruw Jones grounded a one-out single into center field. Up stepped Perez, who had doubled and homered in Game 1. He flew to right. Up stepped Brian Hunter, who had walked his first time up. He bounced to second.

Weiss, given another start after collecting three hits in Game 1, led off the fifth with a single into left field. Presented with another chance to break through, the Braves whiffed again when Millwood popped up a bunt and Williams grounded into a double play.

Maybe nothing would give.

Or maybe it would just take a little while longer.

"My first two at-bats I was very impatient. I was swinging at balls and trying to pull outside pitches," Jordan said. "This was my first time facing [Rogers] and I didn't know what to expect. After seeing him twice, I finally realized I had to be patient and take what he gave me. If he throws it outside, try to go that way. I was fortunate that it went a long way and stayed fair."

Perez said he was surprised Rogers still was in the game when he stepped to the plate. "I looked in their dugout and saw their pitching coach [Dave Wallace] was ready to take him out. I was waiting for it. Then he went back in. They left him in. I was looking for a good pitch to hit. He was throwing first-pitch curveballs to everyone so I was looking for it. He threw me a changeup and I hit it on the good part of the bat."

As the Mets prepare for Game 3, with left-hander Al Leiter taking the ball, they can only hope history repeats itself. At least the portion that favors them.

Twice, they've lost Game 1 in four previous appearances in the NLCS. Both times, they won the series -- in 1973 and 1986. But only two teams, the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals and 1984 San Diego Padres, have rallied from 2-0 deficits.

"We wanted to jump out ahead of these guys and put the pressure on them while we were at home," Millwood said. "Going to New York up 2-0 is going to give us a lot of confidence, and maybe it will make those guys press a little bit."

Said Jordan: "I don't think the Mets are going to be pressing. Those guys, their backs have been against the wall at the end of the season and they've been coming out smelling like roses. Right now, they're happy to be in a championship and going out and having fun. They continue to battle and fight and find a way to win. We've got our work cut out for us."

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