Originally created 09/22/04

Atlanta closes in on NL East title



ATLANTA - It has become his daily mantra, one he recites to the media that has assembled to chronicle another remarkable season.

"We haven't won anything yet," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "We have nothing to celebrate yet."

Perhaps not, but the numbers don't lie. Following Tuesday night's 5-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds in front of 20,359 Turner Field fans, the magic number has dropped to three, meaning any combination of Braves' wins and Marlins' losses totaling three will clinch a 13th consecutive division championship.

For fans in Philadelphia and Miami, who once held out hope that the Braves' reign atop the NL East would end this year, some cold, hard facts: With the Braves' longest homestand of the season stretching ahead of them, and nine games against three teams they have gone 22-13 against this season, the 10 cases of champagne stacked in the clubhouse will soon be gone.

It has taken John Thomson less than six months to prove himself a capable replacement for Greg Maddux. The 30-year-old righthander, now 13-8 after winning a third straight start, gave up just five hits in seven innings, retired 19 of the final 22 Reds he faced, and struck out a season-high nine.

Thomson has now strung together 24 innings in which he has allowed 17 hits and just two earned runs, a stretch dating back to Sept. 5. He is 7-1 in 13 starts since the All-Star break and his 13th win matched last year's career-high.

Reliever Chris Reitsma allowed two runs in the eighth, then gave way to John Smoltz, who gave up a run in the ninth, then struck out Felipe Lopez with runners on first and second to record his 40th save.

Reach Bill Zack at BZack30143@aol.com.

BRAVES' MAGIC NUMBER IS 3