Originally created 05/27/01

Braves tee off on last-place Pirates



ATLANTA - It seems unlikely to imagine, 55 days into their 11th season of greatness, that John Burkett would be regarded as Old Reliable, that B.J. Surhoff would challenge Albert Hall's career highlight, and that the Sons of the South would be forced to take advantage of the league's worst team to finally regain .500 footing.

But here the Braves sit, halfway through a holiday weekend and drawing a bead on first place, because all those elements were present Saturday night in a 9-3 win over Pittsburgh, their second in a row over the Pirates and seventh in their past 10 games.

Amid all the bashing at Turner Field, there was Surhoff, who finished a single shy of becoming the first Brave since Hall in 1987 to hit for the cycle. Surhoff, returning to the lineup for the first time since May 18, tormented the Pirates with a triple, home run and double, and he knocked in three runs.

"I would have preferred to come up with a man on and focus," said Surhoff, who missed five games with back spasms. "I had a whole half-inning to think about it. It would have been nice to do. But I'm glad I didn't cost anybody a million dollars tonight."

Surhoff wasn't alone in boosting his batting average against the league's worst pitching staff. Andruw Jones, who hit his 13th home run in the third, also drove in runs with singles in the fourth and eighth. And three players - Brian Jordan, Javy Lopez and Rico Brogna - had two hits apiece as everyone but third baseman Chipper Jones came away with at least one.

"Of course we look at the standings," Lopez said. "We see the Pirates with the worst record in the league, and we know we have to take advantage of them. At the end of the year, looking back, if you don't win these games, you're not going to make the playoffs."

The Pirates, who have lost five in a row, nine of their past 11 and 15 of 18, have been Mike Tyson to the Braves' Evander Holyfield for six years here. They have dropped 13 of 14 games at Turner Field since the start of 1998, and 21 of 28 in Atlanta since Opening Day 1995.

It looked like more of the same in the second inning against Pirates loser Don Wengert, who spent a month in the Braves bullpen last season. He retired Jordan on a pop fly, then ran into trouble when Surhoff tripled to center. Lopez banged a double up the right-center gap, then Brogna lined a double into the left-field corner to make it 2-1.

"I don't know if I was surprised or not (by Surhoff)," manager Bobby Cox said. "I didn't know what to expect. But, boy, he was aggressive. I was more than impressed."

Andruw Jones wrested the club home run lead away from Chipper Jones with his fourth home run in his past five games, a drive estimated at 377 feet, into the left-field stands in the third. Jordan singled, then Surhoff ripped his fourth home run into the first row of the right-field seats.

"We swung the bats good in Florida, too," Andruw Jones said. "We've just got to keep playing the way we are right now."

Wengert, excused after allowing hits to eight of the 16 batters he faced, including six for extra bases, gave way to ex-Brave Terry Mulholland. Brogna, mired in a 13 for 71 (.183) slump, greeted him with his second double for a 6-1 lead.

Burkett, who had no-decisions in his previous two starts, despite allowing just four runs in 12 innings, went 6 2/3 innings and turned an 8-3 lead over to his bullpen.

The Pirates, last in the league in batting average (.231), runs (170), slugging percentage (.376) and on-base percentage (.300), were easy pickings for the Braves.

Burkett, touched for single runs in the second, fifth and seventh, gave way to Mike Remlinger in the seventh, having given up just two earned runs.

"I felt a little out of sync," said Burkett, who improved to 3-4, while lowering his earned run average to 2.99. "I'm going to face these guys again (this week), so I'm going to have to make some adjustments."

Needing only a single to hit for the cycle for the first time in his 15-year career, Surhoff tapped to first in the seventh.

"I just rolled over on the ball," said Surhoff, who tacked 16 points onto his batting average and is now hitting .235. "I had a good ball to hit. It was probably a ball I should have drove."

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.