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Braves give credit to Cubs' arms

ATLANTA -- The Chicago Cubs won a postseason series for the
first time in nearly 100 years. For the Atlanta Braves, the
conclusion was all too familiar.

Another division title, another playoff failure.

The Cubs beat the Braves 5-1 Sunday night in Game 5 of their NL
division series, with Kerry Wood again dominating what was the best
offensive team in the league during the regular season.

Wood pitched five-hit ball over eight innings after giving up
only two runs in 7 1/3 innings in the opener.

"We just didn't make any adjustments," Braves closer John Smoltz said. "They pitched the same way the whole series. But they
dominated. It's not like they were throwing slop up there."

Even when Atlanta did something right, it didn't seem to work
out.

Slugger Gary Sheffield got what appeared to be his third hit of
the series in the sixth, a line drive to center with two on and no
outs. But because the umpires ruled that center fielder Kenny Lofton trapped the ball, Marcus Giles was forced at second, and
Sheffield was credited with a fielder's choice. However, television replays showed that Lofton may have caught the ball.

"I was mad because both of the umpires down the lines were
standing there with their hands in their pockets," said Giles, who
sat at his locker in full uniform for several minutes. "I thought
he caught it. I would've liked to have seen the call a little
sooner."

That ruined the last rally for the Braves, even though Rafael
Furcal scored their only run on the play. With Sheffield on first
and one out, Chipper Jones bounced into a double play.

"I don't think anybody's better than our team," Sheffield
said. "But they outplayed us, and that's the bottom line."

It's the sixth time in the past seven years Atlanta has been
eliminated at Turner Field, and this loss was seen by a
franchise-record crowd of 54,357. Last season, the Braves lost in
the division series to the wild-card San Francisco Giants, also at
home.

"I'm tired of talking about it, but that's what happened,"
Smoltz said. "I'm man enough to say we got beat, but I don't like
it.''

Mike Hampton started on three days' rest and gave up four runs
on seven hits in 6 2/3 innings, leaving after Kenny Lofton singled.

Hampton got little help from the offense. Atlanta led the NL in
every major hitting category this season: batting average (.284),
homers (a franchise-record 235) and runs (907, another club mark).
Four players -- Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones -- reached 100 RBI, and six had 20 homers.

But nobody had more than one hit in the deciding game, and only
two of the hits went for extra bases.

"They had more timely hitting, and in the postseason that's
what it takes," Hampton said. "They're great pitchers if they're
on, and they were on."

Again, Braves manager Bobby Cox made some questionable
decisions. He relegated Mark DeRosa to pinch-hitting duty for four
games, even though he hit .364 down the stretch.

DeRosa also hit a two-run double in Game 2 when he started for
the injured Giles.

Sheffield and the Joneses combined to hit .122 in the series, a
year after Sheffield finished 1-for-16 against the Giants. Robert Fick, the only offseason addition to the offense, went 0-for-11 and
didn't start the final two games, replaced by 40-something Julio
Franco.

"Their pitching was awfully strong," Cox said. "We failed to
beat the two big guys one game out of three. That's what it would
have taken. That didn't happen."

So despite a record 12 straight division titles, the Braves have
little to show for it, except their lone World Series title in
1995. They've reached the Fall Classic four other times during the
run, but not since they were swept by the New York Yankees in 1999.

"Winning is what it's all about," Hampton said. "Each year,
only one team wins the championship, so everybody else goes home a
loser. It's disappointing, but that's the nature of this."

The roster should see some changes by next year, too. Four
regulars are free agents, including Sheffield and Lopez, who hit a
record 42 home runs as a catcher this season and 43 in all. Fick
and third baseman Vinny Castilla also don't have a contract.

"My future with the Braves is uncertain," Lopez said. "I'm
sort of in limbo right now. I don't where I'll end up."

The same goes for Greg Maddux, who's won at least 15 games for a
record 16 straight seasons.