Originally created 09/23/96

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ATLANTA - In a clubhouse noted for raucous celebrations, Sunday afternoon's revelry was a toned-down affair that bordered on the bland.

The requisite bubbly was available, the T-shirts and caps proclaiming another championship were handed out, but the festivities petered out before the guests became unruly.

Ho-hum, just another division championship for the Atlanta Braves.

"How would I describe the celebration?" pitcher Tom Glavine said. "I wouldn't say it's subdued, but we've been through it enough to know that it's just a step along the way. We all realize there's a whole lot more we want to do."

Five years of triumph was turned into a National League record with the Braves' 8-2 victory over the Montreal Expos before a second straight sellout crowd of 49,238 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, a win that clinched the NL East title.

The victory gave the Braves a record five straight first-place finishes, interrupted by the 1994 strike, joining the Oakland A's (1971-75) and the New York Yankees (1949-53, 1960-1964) as the only teams in baseball history to accomplish the feat.

"It's five in a row and that's some feat," manager Bobby Cox said. "I'm happy to be a part of it."

The Braves' 93rd win was accomplished with state-of-the-art pitching and more offense than they had produced in 10 days. On a record-setting afternoon, John Smoltz broke one of Phil Niekro's records and matched another.

Along the way, Marquis Grissom reached 200 hits for the first time in his career, Mark Lemke homered for the first time since June 13 and Jeff Blauser contributed a hit for the first time since July.

It all added up to Smoltz's 23rd win, which tied Niekro's Atlanta record, and was the Braves seventh win in eight games following a 2-11 skid.

"I think this is one of our most gratifying years because of what we've overcome," Smoltz said. "It's been an unbelievable year for me personally."

In beating the Expos for the first time in his career in Atlanta, Smoltz worked eight innings and struck out 10, the 12th time in 34 starts this season he's reached double-figures in strikeouts.

The strikeouts upped Smoltz's season total to 272, breaking Niekro's modern-era record of 262 set in 1977.

"It's a special season," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "Twenty-three wins, the strikeout record, he's done it all. It's hard to tell how many times a season like this will come along."

Smoltz (23-8) did as much damage with his bat as he did with his right arm. His three-run homer against Expos starter Jeff Fassero (15-10) in the sixth inning snapped a 2-2 tie and Grissom followed with his 23rd homer for a 6-2 advantage.

"I couldn't explain the excitement of rounding the bases, knowing I had just put the team ahead," said Smoltz of his fourth career home run, his first since June 1994.

Lemke, with just two hits in the series, doubled and scored in the third inning, then tied the game in the fifth with his fifth homer. That was just one of 15 hits the Braves produced, including four by rookie Andruw Jones and three each by Grissom and Javier Lopez.

"They've clinched it," Fassero said. "We don't have to worry about them anymore. That might have been good for us (to watch the celebration). Maybe it will happen for us."

What the Expos witnessed was some handshakes and back-slapping in the middle of the diamond. Then some champagne flowed in the clubhouse. But as celebrations go, this was a birthday party without the cake and candles.

"We sort of expected this out of ourselves," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "It's just a toned-down celebration. I don't think anybody will be satisfied unless we go back and achieve what we did last year."

Notebook: Bench players get a chance to play

ATLANTA - By clinching the National League East with a week remaining in the season, the Braves gave themselves a present Sunday afternoon.

They can cut back on the innings their starters pitch, give their regulars a rest and play their bench players.

"I think it's huge," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "There are guys who need at-bats and some other guys need some time off. I think it helped us a lot last year. It couldn't have happened any better."

Manager Bobby Cox may rest some regulars today and give others two at-bats before pulling them from the game. Although the Braves didn't announce it following Sunday's game, they may push back Greg Maddux's scheduled start tonight so the right-hander can rest a sore hamstring. Even if he does pitch, the plan is for him to come out after five or six innings.

In any case, the 10 days between clinching the division and opening the playoffs will greatly benefit the Braves.

"It's like a week's vacation before having to come back for mid-terms," Jones said.

BACK AT THIRD: Jones was back at third base Sunday afternoon for the first time since Aug. 13.

With Jeff Blauser making his first start at shortstop since suffering a broken bone in his left hand July 15 against the Expos, Jones returned to the position he'd played for most of two seasons.

After 35 games at shortstop, Jones is convinced he's a better third baseman.

"As a shortstop, I'm an average, maybe a little better than average, shortstop," he said. "I'm not up in the Ozzie Smith, Barry Larkin -type echelon. At third base, to be mentioned in the same breath as the ( Matt) Williams and (Ken) Caminitis, I think I can achieve that."

That may ultimately prove to be true, but Jones certainly was no slouch at shortstop. He was charged with only three errors in 35 games and handled double play pivots as well as anyone. The problem is, Cox has to get Blauser ready for the postseason and he only has seven more games to do it.

That means Jones will play at third base while Blauser get some at-bats, then Cox will make a decision whether Jones will play shortstop or third during the postseason.

"If the team needs me at shortstop over the course of a year I think I could do a better than average job," Jones said. "But my personal preference is third base."

WINTER PLANS: Depending on whether the Braves advance to another World Series, reliever Terrell Wade might pitch in the Dominican Winter League as a starter to prepare to join the rotation next season.

Wade, who has worked in 40 games this season, would be reluctant to continue pitching if he's used in two playoffs series, then the championship.

"It all depends on if Bobby (Cox) and Leo (Mazzone) think I need some more innings," Wade said. "If we go back to the World Series and I pitch, I might not go (to the Dominican)."

GOAL ACHIEVED: Marquis Grissom reached 200 hits for the first time in his career Sunday, the first Brave to collect 200 hits in a season since Ralph Garr had 214 in 1974. He also moved to within 10 atbats of Garr's franchise record of 668 at-bats in 1973.

"Two hundred hits was something I thought about at spring training, something that I wanted to do," Grissom said. "I wanted to be productive. The only way I can do that is have something to shoot for. Two hundred hits was a way to motivate me."

Andruw Jones broke out of a 4-for-36 slump Sunday with four hits, including two singles and a pair of doubles. Since being called up by the Braves Aug. 14, he has 21 hits -- 13 for extra bases.


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