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BASEBALL: Braves sweep Astros, advance to NLCS
Updated: 2001-10-13 09:19

After struggling just to make the playoffs, the Braves cruised into the NLCS for the ninth time in 10 years, beating the Houston Astros 6-2 on October 12 in Altanta to complete a sweep of their first-round series.

``It all came together at the right time,'' Brian Jordan said. ``We're very confident right now.''

The Braves made eight straight appearances in the league championship series from 1991-99. St. Louis brought a shocking end to the streak last year by sweeping the best-of-five first round.

``What happened last year was disappointing and embarrassing,'' Tom Glavine said. ``All you can do is come back and try to do something about it. We've done that.''

For much of this season, the Braves didn't even appear to be playoff material. They won just 88 games - fewest among playoff teams - and struggled down the stretch to put away the youthful Philadelphia Phillies.

That didn't matter a bit when Atlanta was paired with Houston, a team that has never won a postseason series in seven appearances.

Light-hitting Paul Bako homered and drove in three runs, John Burkett pitched six shutout innings and Chipper Jones put the Astros put of their misery with a two-run homer in the eighth.

As Jones touched the plate with his second homer of the series, the crowd chanted, ``Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!''

``We wanted to come out and make a statement that we deserved to be here as much as anyone,'' he said.

Atlanta will meet either the Cardinals or Arizona Diamondbacks starting Tuesday for a spot in the World Series.

Houston lost to the Braves in the division series for the third time since 1997. Most distressing for the Astros - they have never even managed to win a game when facing elimination.

``Honestly, I thought we had a better team than the Braves,'' manager Larry Dierker.

On paper, maybe. The Astros lost to a team that had Bako filling in at catcher for the injured Javy Lopez and 40-something Julio Franco, plucked from the Mexican League, starting at first base.

Bako and Franco played a major role in Atlanta's victory.

With two outs in the second inning, Rey Sanchez doubled over Lance Berkman in left on an 0-2 pitch. Houston starter Shane Reynolds got ahead of Bako 1-2 only to catch a little too much of the strike zone with a slider.

Bako lined a 403-foot drive over the wall in right - his first homer since June 1 and first postseason hit ever.

Dierker decided to pitch to Bako, the No. 8 hitter, with first base open.

``With the control and experience that Shane has got, I'm dumbfounded that he made a pitch that the guy can hit out of the park,'' Dierker said. ``If we don't allow those two runs, we're right in the game.''

Franco, signed by the Braves with a month to go after the team went through four other first basemen, hit his first playoff homer in the third, a 397-foot drive to the left-field seats to put the Braves up 3-0.

``There's a lot of superstars who are sitting home right now,'' said Franco, whose age is listed as 40 but is thought to be several years older.

Bako followed his homer with a 15-foot RBI in the fourth. The catcher put down a perfect squeeze bunt with Andruw Jones breaking from third.

That was plenty of runs for Burkett, making his first playoff start since 1996. The 36-year-old right-hander extended Houston's scoreless streak to 15 innings before pinch-hitter Daryle Ward's two-run homer in the seventh.

Steve Reed, Mike Remlinger and John Smoltz came out of the bullpen to finish off the Astros.

Smoltz, who moved to the bullpen this season because of elbow problems, struck out the first two hitters in the ninth before Tony Eusebio flied to center, ending the series.

``It was incredible,'' Smoltz said. ``My job is to ride the emotion in the ninth. I wanted to make it quick.''

The Braves clinched before thousands of empty seats at Turner Field. The stands were about half-full at the start of the afternoon game, but late-arriving fans brought the announced attendance to 39,923 at the 50,091-seat ballpark.

Burkett kept Houston off balance with an array of curves, sliders and changeups. Vinny Castilla epitomized his team's woes, nearly falling down on a swinging third strike that ended the sixth with Moises Alou at second.

Houston's latest postseason collapse could mark the end for Dierker, who received something less than a vote of confidence from general manager Gerry Hunsicker before Game 3.

``I'm pretty calm,'' Dierker said. ``Our record is good. I think we deserve another chance.''

Maybe it's time to dismantle the Killer B's. Craig Biggio was 2-for-12 in the series and has a .130 career postseason average. Jeff Bagwell was 3-for-7 with no RBIs, making him a .178 hitter in the playoffs. Lance Berkman was 2-for-12 (.167) in his first postseason appearance.

``Winning four (division) championships in five years is not too shabby,'' Bagwell said. ``We just haven't been able to get over this first-round thing.''

The Braves are hardly imposing with a lineup that includes Franco, Bako and Sanchez, yet they always have a chance because of their pitching.

Greg Maddux pitched six strong innings in Game 1, Glavine went eight innings for a 1-0 victory in Game 2 and Burkett got the win in the clincher. All three times, starter-turned-closer Smoltz pitched the ninth, his fastball clocked as high as 99 mph.

``The fact is, we didn't play very well all year,'' Smoltz said. ``Maybe this will be a spark.'' Notes: Before their big hits in the second, Sanchez was 0-for-6 in the series and Bako 0-for-5. ... Braves manager Bobby Cox, who skipped Thursday's workout to be with his ailing sister, was back in uniform for Game 3. ... The Braves are 9-1 against the Astros in postseason games. ... Ward's homer was the first by a Houston pinch-hitter in the postseason. ... Houston shortstop Julio Lugo, who made critical errors in the first two games, was used as a pinch-hitter in the fifth, flying out. Jose Vizcaino started instead. ... Former president Jimmy Carter and ex-Braves owner Ted Turner watched from a box next to the Atlanta dugout.

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