ATLANTA -- Let it be known that reports of Greg Maddux's de-mise have been greatly exagger-ated.
The same goes for the Atlanta Braves.
A pitcher and a team that have experienced some hard times in the first half of the season saved some of their best baseball for when it was needed the most.
If a message wasn't delivered in Sunday afternoon's 1-0 victory over the second-place Mets at Turner Field, certainly a memo was taken. A club that hasn't been in a good, old-fashioned pennant race since the strike year of 1994 is already looking ahead to September.
"I don't see them going away," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "They've got too many good players. I don't see any sign that it won't be a race."
By winning two of three games from the Mets in the first leg of a home-and-home series that resumes next weekend at Shea Stadium, the Braves boosted their division lead to four games, the same margin as when they opened the homestand last Tuesday.
Following the three games in New York, the two teams won't meet again until the final two weeks of the season.
"With the schedule we have, it's probably going to come down to who's hot last," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said. "I don't think we're going to run away and hide and I don't think they're going to run away from us."
In victimizing the Mets for the 23rd time in his career, more than any other opponent, Maddux offered the 46,092 fans on hand a vintage eight-inning performance, allowing only two singles and four baserunners. Atlanta's defense, which has played five straight errorless games, was superb behind him.
Shortstop Ozzie Guillen played his best all-around game of the season, starting with a great diving grab of Roger Cedeno's liner in the third. Then he ripped a double into the right-center gap against Mets starter Masato Yoshii (6-6) in the bottom of the inning, sending Eddie Perez across the plate with the game's only run. Right fielder Brian Jordan went back to the warning track in the fifth to take a double away from
Mike Piazza, then Guillen started a killer double play on Piazza's grounder in the seventh.
"I think I like the defense we played today more than the winning hit," Guillen said. "You can't make a mistake with those people."
Playing like they had planes to catch, the two teams sped through nine innings in a startling 2:06, Atlanta's speediest game since a 2:05 Maddux gem against the Reds last Aug. 6.
Maddux, who had lost two of his last three starts despite allowing a total of five earned runs, retired the first 14 hitters before Brian McRae spoiled his no-hit bid with a two-out single in the fifth. Cedeno followed with another hit, creating New York's first threat, but it died when Rey Ordonez dribbled out weakly to Bret Boone.
McRae should have called time out and savored the moment. He was the only Met to reach second base all afternoon against Maddux, duplicating the feat in the eighth inning when he drew a leadoff walk and was stranded at third when Matt Franco chased a third-strike changeup.
"There's no way (Maddux) has pitched like that all year or he wouldn't have a 4.00 ERA," Franco said. "He was awesome, unhittable."
Maddux (7-5) used three pitches effectively -- a fastball, a changeup and a cutter against left-handed hitters -- and had impeccable command. It was his best performance since the 5-0 shutout of the Reds back on Aug. 6.
After beating up rookie Odalis Perez and a pair of relievers in the series opener Friday night, New York's lineup managed only six hits and one run against Atlanta's two Cy Young winners, Maddux and Tom Glavine.
Explaining his success, Maddux said, "Just fire it down the middle and hope it doesn't end up there. That's what my coach told me when I was 14 or 15 and it still works. I located well, but I got away with some mistakes."
Running on fumes after making 93 pitches in eight humid innings, Maddux gave way to John Rocker, who left a pair of runners on base in the ninth by striking out Robin Ventura for his 16th save.
"It was one of the best games you'll ever see," Braves manager Bobby Cox said.
Perhaps it's the start of a great pennant race too.
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