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Atlanta RF's hitting streak reaches 22 games

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- If this was Kris Benson's final start for
Pittsburgh, it mirrored much of his major league career. It was
disappointing.

Jaret Wright and four Atlanta relievers shut down the Pirates on Monday night in a 4-2 Braves victory keyed by two hits from Johnny Estrada off Benson.

J.D. Drew ran his hitting streak to 22 games with a single in
Atlanta's go-ahead fifth inning against Benson (8-8), who is
expected to be dealt by Saturday's deadline for trading without
waivers. Benson was 4-1 in his previous seven starts and 3-0 in his
last five.

"I didn't get the win, but I can't be disappointed with the
last two months," said Benson, who finally appears to be
developing into the No. 1 starter the Pirates long envisioned. "It
[the trade talk] didn't bother me at all. It's the position I'm in,
and I didn't let it affect me."

In a matchup of two streaking teams, the Braves won their fourth
in a row, their 21st in 28 games overall and their 10th in 11 road
games to open a 1½-game lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. The
Phillies lost 11-3 to Florida.

The Braves also improved to a season-high eight games over .500
(53-45) while beating Pittsburgh for the ninth time in 12 games the
last two seasons. The Pirates had won three straight overall and 20
of 26, plus 14 of 15 home games.

Benson, the No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft, gave up seven hits and
four runs in six innings. His career record dropped to 43-49, but
that didn't keep manager Lloyd McClendon from giving him a hug.

"I told him I didn't know what's going to happen, but I'm proud
of the way he's gone about his business," McClendon said. "He's
been fantastic. He's certainly turned the corner and pitched the
way we always felt he could pitch."

So has Wright (8-5), who had only nine wins from 2000 to 2003. He
lasted just five innings on a drizzly, muggy night, but still
checked Pittsburgh on two runs and five hits, including Jack
Wilson's solo home run. The Pirates were coming off a three-game
sweep of the Reds in which they scored 26 runs.

"He's recovering from a couple of arm operations and it's the
first time he's been in the rotation in years," Braves manager
Bobby Cox said. "He pitched well -- not his best -- but he really
aired it out in the last inning."

Both pitchers struggled somewhat following a 41-minute rain
delay just after the Pirates began batting in the first. McClendon
considered pulling Benson and bringing him back for the final game
of the four-game series Thursday.

"I wish I had now," McClendon said. "We started in the rain
and then shut it down 10 minutes later, and I wasn't too happy
about that."

The Pirates managed only one hit after Wright was lifted.
Antonio Alfonseca, Kevin Gryboski, Chris Reitsma and John Smoltz
followed with a scoreless inning each, with Smoltz pitching a
perfect ninth for his 21st save in 23 opportunities.

"There's nothing worse than starting a game, then having a
delay. But, like we talked about a week ago, we've just got to get
it done and we did a nice job," Smoltz said.

Wright improved to 6-0 in his last 12 starts and 3-0 in his last
five despite giving up runs in two of the first three innings.
Craig Wilson put the Pirates ahead 1-0 with an RBI single in the
first, and Jack Wilson made it 2-1 in the third with his ninth
homer.

Adam LaRoche had an RBI double in the fourth following Estrada's
single. Benson then got himself in trouble in the two-run Atlanta
fifth by walking Marcus Giles with one out ahead of Drew's
streak-extending single.

Chipper Jones' sacrifice fly scored Giles, and Estrada made it
4-2 with a run-scoring double off the right-field wall that a
leaping Craig Wilson couldn't grab. Estrada's .438 average with
runners in scoring position leads the majors.

Benson beat the Braves 4-3 in Atlanta on Wednesday, allowing two
runs in eight innings.

"Having faced him less than a week ago, he was fresh in our
minds and we had an idea how he likes to pitch, so we had a little
bit of an advantage," Estrada said.

Game notes
Drew's hitting streak ties for fifth-longest in Braves
history. Rico Carty had a club-record 31-game streak in 1970. ...
Drew has reached base in 40 consecutive games. ... The Pirates
missed a chance to move within a game of .500 after once being 15
games under. ... Atlanta is 16-5 in July and Pittsburgh is 15-7.
... The Pirates had lost at home only once since June 20. ...
Wright is 7-2 with a 1.91 ERA in night games and 1-3 with an 8.86
ERA in day games.