Braves 3, Pirates 2

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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 Thursday.

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 3 1/2 -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 1990s.

“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.

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.

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