ATLANTA - With September just around the corner, the Atlanta Braves are starting to put their postseason faces on.
That means late-inning comebacks and beating up on the Cincinnati Reds have become habits again.
The Braves did it again Wednesday night, winning their sixth straight, 4-3, on pinch hitter Luis Polonia's ninth-inning sacrifice fly in front of a crowd of 29,213 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
The victory was the Braves' ninth in their last 10 games and was their 15th in 16 games against the Reds since last Aug. 10, a stretch that includes last October's sweep of the league championship series.
"Let's win 20 of 25 and wait until the middle of September to see if we're peaking," Chipper Jones said.
The win, the Braves' 17th in their last at-bat this season, was set up by Ryan Klesko's aggressive baserunning in the ninth. He took off from second base when reliever Jeff Brantley's pitch bounced a few feet away from the plate and scored on Polonia's sacrifice fly moments later.
"I took a chance," Klesko said. "That's the way I've always been taught. Ninety percent of the time it's going to pay off."
Polonia, a key contributor during last year's postseason and signed by the Braves again last Saturday, produced his first RBI.
"When you come to a team you want to push yourself to help right away," he said. "It feels pretty good."
The Braves trailed by a run in the eighth, but tied the game when Jones led with his second double, Fred McGriff singled and Terry Pendleton slapped a ground ball to the right side to score Jones. That marked one of the few times they produced in the clutch all evening.
In pursuit of his 21st win, John Smoltz worked seven innings and allowed only two runs, yet came away with his second no-decision of the season.
Smoltz was done in by a lineup that doles out runs like a father handing out an allowance. The Braves got him two runs and threatened repeatedly, but couldn't produce a hit with runners in scoring position.
"You're going to have games like this," Smoltz said. "I'm just glad we won."
Smoltz made two mistakes, the first a home run pitch to Jeff Branson in the fifth that gave the Reds a brief 1-0 lead. Then Thomas Howard tripled the next inning and scored on Lenny Harris' single.
"I'm really disappointed with the home run pitch," Smoltz said. "After going through four innings and getting two outs, the home run was very disappointing."
Trailing 1-0 in the fifth, the Braves got a break. Held to one hit by Reds starter Mike Remlinger, Pendleton led with a single and Jermaine Dye followed with a routine fly ball. But a balk was called on Remlinger and Dye returned to the plate and drove the next pitch into the left field corner, scoring Pendleton with the tying run.
Remlinger departed after issuing a one-out walk to Mark Lemke and on came right-hander Jeff Shaw. After faking a bunt, Smoltz chopped a single into right field to load the bases and Marquis Grissom's grounder scored the go-ahead run.
Tied again in the eighth, the Reds pushed the go-ahead run across the plate against reliever Brad Clontz and before the inning ended, Pedro Borbon's perfection ended. Thanks to some poor defense by McGriff, the left-hander allowed an inherited runner to score, his first this season after stranding 19 men on base.
Then came the ninth and the Braves revisited the late heroics they used so frequently last season.
"I just think our last at-bat wins have been spread out over 125 games," Jones said. "Last year we didn't start winning those games until the second half."
Cox keeps patching together a rotation
ATLANTA - Bobby Cox doesn't go anywhere without a creased sheet of paper that lists the pitching rotation for the next few weeks.
The paper is wrinkled and worn because Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone have been forced to make changes and patch together a rotation with the injuries to Steve Avery and Jason Schmidt.
"I've never carried around my pitching rotation before like I have this year," Cox said.
Avery won't begin throwing from a mound until Sept. 1 and he hopes that by the end of the first week of September he'll be ready to make a start with the Braves' Instructional League team in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Avery has been playing catch in the outfield and purposely placing some stress on his oblique muscle in an attempt to strengthen it. By the time he eventually heads to the mound, his muscle will have had about a month to heal.
"This will be by far the longest I've waited," Avery said. "I think the hardest part will be seeing hitters and getting my mechanics down after two months off."
The Braves are counting on Avery returning to the rotation in time for the postseason. If he can't make it back, the club is undecided whether to go with a three-man rotation through the playoffs, which would mean Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz would make six or seven starts each, or add Terrell Wade or Mike Bielecki to the group.
"Knock on wood," Cox said. "If we're in the playoffs, we'll need (Avery)."
Schmidt was scheduled to pitch Wednesday night at Class AAA Richmond (Va.), make another start Monday and start Aug. 31 against the Cubs in Chicago.
STRONGER: Shortstop Jeff Blauser increased his swings off a batting tee to nearly 200 Wednesday afternoon and indicated his left hand is becoming stronger.
"If I work out a little extra every day and it's not getting sore, then it's getting stronger," he said.
Blauser will have his hand X-rayed today or Friday to see how the bone is healing. He hopes to begin swinging against live pitching within a week.
JUST SHORT: Chipper Jones headed into Wednesday night's game with 96 RBI, two shy of the Atlanta record for second-year players set by Bob Horner in 1978. The franchise record for RBI by a second-year player is 135 by Eddie Mathews in 1953.
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