Braves breathe, await New York's better half; Yanks head to Atlanta after Mets' run fizzles


ATLANTA -- Sorting through the rubble and debris that's left from Game 6 of the National League Championship Series will be much easier once all the smoke has cleared. That shouldn't take longer than another week or so. Inhale at your own risk.

By then, the Atlanta Braves won't have much interest in looking back. They're already gearing for the World Series, which begins Saturday on their home field against the New York Yankees. There's no time for reminiscing and replaying.

That will come later. Even New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who had the misfortune of being on the losing end, said he'll review all the games over the winter.

"I'll try to enjoy them like I think millions of people got to enjoy them," he said.

Valentine had better find a comfortable chair. The last two games consumed a total of 26 innings, 11 coming in Tuesday's clincher, when neither team could decide which side of the score it would occupy until the Braves prevailed, 10-9, on a bases-loaded walk.

The Mets were down by five runs after the first inning, four runs after the sixth. Forget a Subway Series. The Braves seemed assured of getting another crack at the Yankees, who beat them in the 1996 Fall Classic.

Game-set-rematch. This would have been the appropriate time for the Mets to finally roll over. Instead, they begged to differ.

Mike Piazza's two-run blast off John Smoltz in the seventh inning capped a four-run rally that tied the score and left Braves manager Bobby Cox open to more second-guessing -- a popular pastime in Atlanta despite his sterling record. Smoltz had nothing, as evidenced by two straight doubles leading off the inning, a fly ball that pressed right fielder Brian Jordan against the fence and a single by John Olerud. Cox stayed with Smoltz. Piazza should send a thank-you note, having been 3-for-22 with one RBI in the series before connecting.

Having shown enough heart to take the last two games at Shea Stadium after being down 3-0, the Mets went ahead in the eighth on a pinch-single by Melvin Mora and again in the 10th on a sacrifice fly by Todd Pratt after another Mora single. Mora, inserted in right field, also cut down Ryan Klesko at third, packing a lot of impact into a limited appearance.

Each time the Mets appeared as though they were history, the Braves drew closer to making it. No team had won the first three games of a series and lost it. Atlanta, with its collars getting as tight as the series itself, wanted no part of it.

Determined not to be labeled the game's biggest chokers, Atlanta rallied in the eighth inning on a run-scoring single by Brian Hunter that followed the second throwing error of the game by Piazza. The Braves matched New York's run in the 10th with a run-scoring single by Ozzie Guillen off former Orioles closer Armando Benitez, who had been virtually unhitable this season.

Finally, after Russ Springer retired the side in the 11th, the Braves ended the suspense. Gerald Williams led off with a double off Kenny Rogers, the eighth pitcher used by Valentine. He was sacrificed to third, and the next two batters were walked intentionally to set up a force at home or a double play.

The Mets got neither. Rogers ran the count full to Andruw Jones, then missed outside and high with a pitch Jones determined to be a changeup. Rogers said it was a slider. Either way, it was off the plate.

"His last two at-bats were very calculated and very patient," Valentine said of Jones, who also opened the 10th with a single before scoring on Guillen's hit. "On the 2-0 pitch, he was anxious, and then he got back in the saddle. I think Kenny felt he could throw a pitch and get him to swing on something on his own, possibly early, and he didn't do it."

Said Williams: "It was a situation where we knew we lost the lead but we didn't lose the game. We had to make sure we got guys in scoring position and drive them in. But as far as us ever giving up or losing spirit or anything like that, no, that's not what this game is about. It's about making the adjustments. You just never know when you're going to be down and you don't know when you're going to be up. But you have to make sure that you do the things that are necessary to continue to compete every inning."

To remain competitive the last two games, both managers used every available player.

"I don't know if that's fun or not," Cox said, "but you just make your moves and you hope they work out. I think Bobby [Valentine] did a great job with their club, and our club responded well for our hometown fans."

Now comes the battle between the top two teams of the 1990s, with apologies to the Toronto Blue Jays, who won back-to-back World Series titles. The Yankees are seeking their third title in four years. The Braves are trying to shed the label of bridesmaids, with just one title to their credit despite owning five NL pennants this decade.

Asked for a World Series prediction, Valentine wouldn't commit to a winner. But he made it clear the Fall Classic had an awfully tough act to follow.

"I think the Braves are outstanding and the Yankees are outstanding," he said. "I hope they can get the viewers' attention the way I think we got their attention."

World Series

Atlanta vs. New York Yankees

Saturday--at Atlanta, 8: 05

Sunday--at Atlanta, 8: 05

Tuesday--at Yankees, 8: 20

Wed.--at Yankees, 8: 20

*Oct. 28--at Yankees, 8: 20

*Oct. 30--at Atlanta, 8: 05

*Oct. 31--at Atlanta, 8: 05

*-If necessary; all games on chs. 11, 4

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