NEW YORK - It won't be possible, in the span of four days, to eliminate the New York Mets from the division race.
But Monday night at Shea Stadium, with Kevin Millwood mirroring images of the past, the bullpen bullying its way past the opposition, and Keith Lockhart delivering his yearly pinch hit home run, the Braves opened a two-city, seven-game swing with a sixth straight win, 3-2, dropping the Mets 8 1/2 games off their frenetic pace.
Lockhart, who had not gone deep as a pinch hitter since last June 27, battled reliever Scott Strickland to a 3-and-2 count in the ninth, then launched a 379-foot, tie-breaking home run over the right field wall, giving rise to a severe case of deja vu for the stumbling Mets.
Backup catcher Henry Blanco beat Strickland with a two-run home run in the eighth inning June 5 in Atlanta.
"At that point, 3-and-2, I was just trying to survive and make contact," said Lockhart, who now has four home runs, his most since hitting nine in 1998. "He came with a fastball and luckily I was able to get my hands through. It's nice to beat these guys, no matter how you do it."
Reliever Kevin Gryboski was credited with the win, his second in four days, for pitching a scoreless eighth. John Smoltz registered his 24th save by getting three outs in the ninth.
"This has been a place we've had trouble winning of late, so we wanted to come in here and at the very least split," said left fielder Chipper Jones, who was hitless in four trips. "We're halfway there."
After a fourth straight start in which he allowed the opposition two runs or fewer - Millwood's shutout lasted until Mo Vaughn's soft RBI single in the sixth - the Braves righthander has solidified a rotation that had taken a back seat to a more effective, though less familiar, bullpen.
Millwood, who has now strung together 26 2/3 innings in which he has allowed just 21 hits, six runs and struck out 22 - including four Mets - is striding closer to his 18-win form of 1999.
"That's four in a row and that's his old form," manager Bobby Cox said. "You feel every time he toes the rubber the other team is going to score only a run or two."
Julio Franco, who had a Jekyll and Hyde night with two hits, two runs, and two double plays, accounted for the first Braves' run with his third home run in the first inning, launching a 2-and-2 mistake from Mets starter Al Leiter over the right-center field wall, a drive estimated at 383 feet.
That was the sum of the Braves' offense until the sixth, when Franco singled and promptly stole second, his third steal of the season. Gary Sheffield followed with a roller through the middle that caromed off second base and into shallow right, where second baseman Roberto Alomar's retrieved it. But his throw home was late, and bounced past catcher Mike Piazza as Franco slid across to make it 2-0.
"It's always nip and tuck with these guys," Jones said. "We went up 2-0, then they got back in the game, then we got a big hit from Lockhart. It was a huge game because it sets the tone for the series."
Millwood set down the first 12 Mets in succession, and in the third inning he looked ready to remove the Gold Glove from Greg Maddux's mantel. He made a terrific behind-the-back catch of Rey Ordonez's smash, mixing equal parts instinct and luck to send the Mets shortstop back to the dugout shaking his head.
Vaughn took honors as the first Mets' base runner when he walked to open the home half of the fifth, then first baseman Franco misplayed Jeromy Burnitz's line drive, Vaughn lumbering to second as the official scorer ruled an error. Roger Cedeno then spoiled Millwood's no-hit bid with a clean single to right, loading the bases for Ordonez, who rolled into a 5-4-3 double play despite an ill-advised headfirst dive into first.
"I feel like my mechanics are solid now, I feel healthy, and I feel like I'm a better pitcher," said Millwood, who took his eighth no-decision, while lowering his ERA to 3.98. "Everything is kind of clicking right now."
Millwood went walk, single, fielder's choice, single in the sixth, his shutout vanishing when Vaughn's soft single dropped into left field with two outs, sending in Roberto Alomar.
Burnitz, a $19 million disappointment with the Mets, opened the bottom of the seventh by rocketing Millwood's misdirected changeup over the right field wall, tying the score 2-all, and when Cedeno whistled a single to center, Cox summoned reliever Mike Remlinger.
The lefty with a 1.75 ERA dodged trouble by whiffing Timo Perez with runners on second and third, setting the stage for Lockhart, who was just 2-for-28 as a pinch hitter this year.
"That was one of the bigger at-bats of the year," Jones said.
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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