Braves take 2-0 lead in NLCS after another late-inning win

The Associated Press

CINCINNATI The Atlanta Braves insist their dramatic comebacks are old stuff. Their raised fists and dancing cleats say otherwise.

Javy Lopez sent the Braves' bench into yet another last-inning dance of joy last night. His three-run homer in the 10th inning completed a 6-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds that put the Braves up 2-0 in their best-of-7 NL playoff.

Atlanta's second consecutive extra-inning win put the Reds in a near-impossible situation. No team has won the NL pennant after losing the first two games of the championship series at home.

''It's a very uncomfortable feeling,'' Reds manager Davey Johnson said. ''We've got to score more runs. Our offense just hasn't produced that many.''

The Braves just seem to produce whenever the game gets late. They've done it so many times 27 wins this year in their last at-bat that they tend to be nonchalant afterward.

''We've been in that situation many times,'' Lopez said. ''This is a team that has many wins in the late innings. I believe we're used to it.''

Three-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux will start Game 3 at Atlanta on tomorrow night, opposed by David Wells.

The Reds pulled out every offensive trick they could think up against starter John Smoltz, who has beaten them three times this season. They finally got him out of the game following the seventh with the score tied at 2.

But the NL's top extra-inning club failed for the second consecutive night. Mark Portugal, relegated to the bullpen for the playoffs, started the 10th by giving up a single to Mark Lemke, a walk to Fred McGriff and a single to David Justice, loading the bases.

Portugal then bounced an 0-2 breaking ball for a wild pitch with Ryan Klesko at bat to let in the go-ahead run, and Lopez followed Klesko with a first-pitch homer high off the left-field foul screen.

In any of the first nine innings, the ball might have drifted foul. But things just seem to go right for the Braves in extra innings.

''I knew it was gone, but I wasn't sure whether it was going to be fair or foul,'' Lopez said. ''So I was just walking, looking at it. It was the happiest moment of my life.''

The Braves, who had the league's worst extra-inning record in the regular season at 3-9, jumped and hugged in the dugout while Lopez rounded the bases, another improbable finish nearing its conclusion.

''It's just happened a ton of times,'' manager Bobby Cox said.

Mark Wohlers pitched the ninth to close out the Braves' fourth come-from-behind win in the playoffs.

It was a particularly stunning loss for Cincinnati, which was 10-3 in extra innings, best in the league. The Reds blew scoring chances in the seventh, eighth and ninth, and ultimately wasted perhaps their most impressive rally of the season.

The Reds were flat and flailing against Smoltz when they turned the game around with the resourcefulness that's become their trademark. Smoltz had a 2-0 lead and was working on a streak of 12 consecutive batters retired, leaving the less-than-capacity crowd of 43,257 restless.

They couldn't hit Smoltz, so they started bunting and stealing on him.

Benito Santiago, with 19 strikeouts in 45 career at-bats against Smoltz, caught third baseman Chipper Jones playing back and bunted for a single. Bret Boone, just 1-for-12 career against Smoltz with seven strikeouts, followed with another bunt single that seemed to unsettle the pitcher, who fielded and threw wildly for an error that Santiago take third.

Santiago was thrown out trying to score on Jeff Branson's grounder, but pinch-hitter Lenny Harris grounded a full-count pitch up the middle to drive in Boone and send Branson to third.

Harris and Branson then pulled off a double steal. Harris took off for second and catcher Javy Lopez bounced his ill-advised throw to shortstop Rafael Belliard, allowing Branson an easy steal of home the first in an NL championship series.

The crude but cunning rally saved John Smiley from another playoff loss. Smiley was trying to make up for the low point of his career: two drubbings by Atlanta in the 1991 NL playoffs, when he was pitching for Pittsburgh.

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