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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
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 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
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.

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.