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Florida blanks Braves, holds on to hope

MIAMI (AP) -- With their playoff hopes fading and their pitching
staff taxed by an onerous September schedule, the Florida Marlins
received a boost from an unlikely source: their fifth starter.

Ismael Valdez pitched six innings to help the Marlins earn their
14th shutout of the season, and they averted a series sweep by
beating the Atlanta Braves 3-0 on Sunday.

Jeff Conine drove in all of the runs with a two-run homer and an
RBI single.

"It all has to do with fighting," Valdez said. "It was a huge
game for us. We needed this."

The defending World Series champions, clinging to slim hopes in
the playoff race, won for only the second time in six games. They
remained 4½ games behind wild-card leader San Francisco and trail
NL East leader Atlanta by 8½ games.

"There's still hope," manager Jack McKeon said. "We're going
out there and giving it our best shot. We still think we have a
chance to win this thing. Who's to say we can't win seven or eight
or nine in a row? We've done it before."

Florida fans haven't given up hope. The announced attendance was
41,525, the Marlins' largest home crowd since April 10.

The Marlins are scheduled to play their third doubleheader in 11
days Monday against the Chicago Cubs, one of four teams ahead of
Florida in the wild-card race.

"They're all pretty much must-wins from here on," Conine said.
He broke up a scoreless duel in the sixth against Russ Ortiz (14-9)
with a two-run homer, then singled home an unearned run in the
eighth.

Playing a day game in muggy, 85-degree weather following a night
game, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox stayed mostly with his regular
lineup. But the Braves failed to muster much offense against Valdez
(13-8), who gave up only two hits -- both singles -- and overcame
four walks, stranding three runners in scoring position.

"He has been pretty much everything you can ask from a fifth
starter, keeping us in the game," Conine said.

Guillermo Mota pitched two innings, and Armando Benitez
completed the three-hitter with a perfect ninth for his 43rd save,
matching a career high.

The Marlins lead the majors in shutouts, and their 30-15 record
in day games is baseball's best. They had lost five in a row
against the Braves and still trail in the season series 11-5 with
three games to go next weekend in Atlanta.

Mike Lowell singled with one out in the sixth before Conine hit
a fastball from Ortiz for his 13th homer.

"In that situation, I'm taking a chance that he's going to make
a mistake," Conine said. "I'm swinging early and swinging up.
Luckily, it hit my bat."

Ortiz has allowed 22 homers this season, including 15 since Aug.
14.

"I'm sick and tired of the home runs I give up deciding a
ballgame," he said.

Florida added a run in the eighth when Luis Castillo singled,
took second on a throwing error by pitcher Ramon Colon, stole third
and scored on Conine's two-out single.

Atlanta's first two batters reached in the first when Rafael
Furcal singled and Marcus Giles walked. But Valdez retired the next
three hitters.

The right-hander also pitched around two walks, one intentional,
in the sixth. He improved to 4-2 in eight starts since joining the
Marlins on July 31.

"I couldn't figure him out," said Julio Franco, who went
0-for-4. "If I could figure him out, I would have had some
hits."

Game notes
Marlins RHP A.J. Burnett, sidelined with elbow
inflammation, threw in the bullpen for 10 minutes and felt
discomfort toward the end. The setback will indefinitely delay the
return of Burnett, who has already missed one turn in the rotation.
... Braves right fielder J.D. Drew was a late scratch from the
lineup because of illness. His replacement, Dewayne Wise, batted
third for the first time this season and went 0-for-3. ... Florida
RHP David Weathers is scheduled to make his first start since May
1998 in Game 2 on Monday.