Braves score twice in ninth to beat Pirates

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Atlanta Braves spent eight innings playing

as if they had every intention of losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Only manager Bobby Cox seemed to know all along the game would turn

in the ninth.

Rafael Furcal made up for two errors with a go-ahead single

during Atlanta's two-run, ninth-inning rally against Pirates closer

Jose Mesa, and the Braves came back to beat Pittsburgh 3-2 on


The Braves won their third in the four-game series, sixth in

seven games overall -- and 15th in 20. They also took the season

series from Pittsburgh 4-2, and are 11-4 against the Pirates the

last two seasons.

Atlanta has opened a season-high 3½-game lead in the NL East

against Florida and Philadelphia, picking up three games in the

standings against the Phillies in four days. The Braves were

one-run winners in each of the last two games in Pittsburgh,

exactly the kind of games they've won regularly since the early


"If you let us find a way and give us a chance, we have been

coming up big," closer John Smoltz said. "We haven't been in a

position to put pressure on people in a while, and now that we're

in first place and winning maybe that conjures up some, `Aw, shoot,

they're winning again and they're winning the games they've always

won before."

That was exactly how the Pirates felt after the Braves beat them

1-0 and 3-2 in consecutive games.

"They don't ever quit," Pirates starter Josh Fogg said. "They

play all nine innings and push all nine innings."

Just like Cox predicted.

Mesa had converted 29 of 30 save opportunities heading into the

ninth, but immediately got into trouble when Johnny Estrada and

Julio Franco singled. Shortstop Jack Wilson's throwing error on

Franco's infield single also helped by moving pinch-runner Mark

DeRosa to third.

Eli Marrero's force-play grounder then tied it when second

baseman Jose Castillo threw home late instead of getting the

certain out at first. Furcal then put the Braves ahead with a

single that fell in front of left fielder Jason Bay. Mesa (2-1)

avoided further damage by leaving the bases loaded, but still took

his first loss.

"I told him (Furcal) in the fifth, `Don't worry about anything,

you'll get the game winner in the ninth.' Sure enough, he does

it," Cox said.

How could Cox be so sure?

"I told him so, that's why," Cox said.

Furcal didn't argue, saying, "When I made those two bad plays,

I said, `Let's go, keep playing, maybe you'll do something good for

the team."

Juan Cruz (3-0) pitched a perfect eighth inning for the victory

before Smoltz finished in the ninth for his 23rd save in 25 games,

and third of the series. He has saves in five of the Braves' last

six games.

"When you get to him, it's pretty much over," Pirates manager

Lloyd McClendon said. "It's frustrating. I'm not going to sit here

and analyze it, but we didn't execute the last two days and we lost

two ballgames because of it."

Fogg bounced back from a two-inning start against Cincinnati on

Saturday to limit the Braves to one run over 5 2-3 innings, but

didn't figure in the decision.

Rob Mackowiak drove in both Pirates runs with a sacrifice fly

following singles by Jason Kendall and Wilson in the first against

John Thomson, and a run-scoring single in the third. It looked as

if Thomson would get out of that inning when Wilson hit a routine

grounder to short, but Furcal misplayed it for his 18th error,

third in two starts and second in as many innings.

But Pittsburgh didn't do anything else against Thomson, who

yielded two runs and five hits in six innings. They missed a chance

to open a bigger lead in the first when left fielder Charles Thomas

made an excellent sliding catch of Mackowiak's drive, causing

Wilson to get doubled off first.

Before the ninth, Atlanta's only run came on Marrero's double

and Nick Green's RBI single in the fifth against Fogg. Green had

three hits.

Game notes
The Pirates had won 20 of 27 overall and 14 of 15 at home

entering the series. ... Mesa's only other blown save was June 12

in Oakland, a 12-11 loss in which he entered in the eighth after

reliever Salomon Torres was ejected. ... Each team turned three

double plays. ... Atlanta has won 12 of 14 road games. ...

Atlanta's J.D. Drew went hitless for a second straight game

following a 22-game hitting streak. ... Drew's streak of reaching

base in 41 consecutive games also ended.