BOSTON - The perspiration came by the gallon Friday night, and not just because fright master Stephen King was seated close enough to curse the Atlanta Braves' bats.
Unhinged at the sight of runners on base, their frustration reaching the critical stage, the Braves finally awakened in the ninth inning, scoring two runs to take a 4-2 win over the Boston Red Sox before a Fenway Park crowd of 33,137 fans.
"We were a little lucky, but it takes a good team to leave that many men on base and still win," said Braves left fielder Chipper Jones , whose team left 14 runners stranded and had a .235 batting average (4-for-17) with runners in scoring position. "We left all those runners on base and still won a game against one of the best teams in baseball."
The offensive awakening featured Gary Sheffield's wall double in the ninth against knuckleballing reliever Tim Wakefield, and two-out RBI singles by Vinny Castilla and Henry Blanco.
The win went to reliever Mike Remlinger (4-0), who pitched a scoreless eighth, then John Smoltz went three-up, three-down in the ninth for his 26th save.
It wasn't easy, not for an offense that left the bases loaded three times and not for Greg Maddux. Hobbled by a strained left calf that limited him to five innings in his start eight days ago against the Tigers, the four-time Cy Young winner took another lump when Carlos Baerga's smash caromed off his right shin in the first inning.
That drew both manager Bobby Cox and assistant trainer Jeff Porter to the mound, but Maddux wouldn't budge.
"He was determined after he got hit that he wasn't coming out," Cox said. "It could have lodged in his shin, and he wasn't leaving."
Maddux lasted five innings, and left with a 2-1 lead, the only run he allowed coming on third baseman Castilla's throwing error in the third, just Castilla's second miscue of the season.
The Braves' offense wasn't much to look at, with the lineup's last three hitters - Darren Bragg, Blanco, and Keith Lockhart - producing the first two runs.
Bragg, the Connecticut native who spent three years with the Red Sox, bedeviled his former team by walking three times, singling twice and scoring two runs. He accepted a free pass from Red Sox starter John Burkett in the third, sped to third on Blanco's textbook hit-and-run, and scored when Lockhart rolled into a double play.
In the fifth, Bragg's smash ricocheted off Burkett and was picked up by second baseman Baerga, who threw wildly past first. Lockhart followed with an RBI single to make it 2-1.
"It's just fun to play in this park," Bragg said.
But a bullpen that's been nearly perfect for three months couldn't protect the lead. Kevin Gryboski pitched a scoreless sixth, then Chris Hammond gave up a single to Jason Varitek to open the bottom of the seventh, walked Jose Offerman, and Baerga followed with a game-tying double.
When Nomar Garciaparra was walked intentionally, loading the bases, Hammond gave way to Darren Holmes, who induced Red Sox strongman Manny Ramirez to fly to Jones, who gloved his drive on the warning track, two steps from the Green Monster.
"Biggest out of the game," Jones said.
In futile pursuit of a clutch hit, the Braves loaded the bases twice in the final four innings, but didn't cross home plate.
Sheffield opened the ninth with a double, but the rally flickered when Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones went out to center fielder Johnny Damon. Castilla then delivered a soft single to center, sending in Sheffield, and Blanco added an extra run with a looping single that fell in front of sprawling right fielder Trot Nixon.
"We've been getting them in for a month and a half," Cox said. "That's the backbone of our club."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.