Braves widen gap in NL East race


ATLANTA (AP) -- Henry Blanco doesn't get many hits. Even so, he's
becoming the guy the Braves want at the plate in clutch situations.

The backup catcher hit a two-out, two-run homer in the eighth
inning for his third game-winning hit of the season, leading the
streaking Atlanta Braves to a 6-4 victory over the New York Mets on
Wednesday night.

"When you look up and see his average on the board, it's not
indicative of how good a hitter he is,'' Chipper Jones said. "He
turned around a pretty good fastball that was down in the strike

Blanco came up in the eighth batting .183. But he has a way of
coming up with big hits -- his other homer was a 10th-inning drive
that won a game at Milwaukee.

He also drove in the winning run against Arizona on April 24
with an eighth-inning single.

"You don't expect it to happen,'' Blanco said. "But it feels
good to help the team win some games.''

The Mets tied it at 4 in the top half of the eighth, then Scott
Strickland (5-3) retired the first two hitters in the bottom half.

Keith Lockhart singled and Blanco hit the next pitch, a low
fastball, over the 400-foot sign in straightaway center for his
second homer of the season.

"They had been throwing me the fastball in, so I went up there
looking for a fastball,'' Blanco said. "I got it.''

Strickland started the inning by striking out Andruw Jones and
Vinny Castilla, who figured to be the main threats. Lockhart was
batting just .148 and Blanco wasn't much better.

"I was trying to throw a sinking ball (to Blanco), the way I
did against Andruw Jones and Castilla,'' Strickland said. "I
yanked it a little bit, but it was still down. You usually don't
get hurt when it's down.''

Julio Franco drove in two runs and scored another for the
Braves, who have built a three-game lead in the NL East by winning
eight of 10 in pursuit of their 11th straight division title.

The Mets lost their fourth in a row and dropped into third
place, a half-game behind Florida and 3½ behind the Braves.

"It's just not happening for us right now,'' manager Bobby
Valentine said. "Things will start spinning in our direction.''

Atlanta starter Greg Maddux, going for his fifth win in a row,
gave up three runs in six innings. He was lifted after throwing
just 79 pitches on a sweltering night.

The Braves felt confident turning the game over to a bullpen
that led the majors with a 2.61 ERA. But Kevin Gryboski walked Mo
Vaughn with the bases loaded in the eighth, tying it at 4.

The bases were still loaded with no outs, but New York couldn't
push across the go-ahead run. Jeromy Burnitz popped out to third
against Gryboski, then Chris Hammond (3-2) struck out pinch-hitter
John Valentin and retired Rey Ordonez on a grounder.

Hammond, who made it back to the majors this season after
retiring from baseball for 2½ years, picked up his second win in
three days.

"That was the first time in a long time that I've experienced
chills and goose bumps out on the mound,'' he said. "I'll remember
this feeling for the rest of the year.''

John Smoltz pitched a perfect ninth for his 16th save.

"Our bullpen actually came through again,'' manager Bobby Cox
said. "Yeah, we gave up one run, but you can't be perfect every

Pedro Astacio went six innings for the Mets, taking his fourth
straight no-decision. He remained 4-13 for his career against the

The Mets broke up a scoreless game in the fourth but could have
scored more. After giving up three straight singles to load the
bases, Maddux struck out Vaughn on a cut fastball over the inside
corner, surrendered a sacrifice fly to Burnitz and struck out Roger
Cedeno swinging.

Overall, New York left seven runners on base.

The Braves got to Astacio in their half of the fourth. Franco
led off with a single, Chipper Jones added a one-out hit and Andruw
Jones cleared the bases with a double to the wall in left-center.

New York went back ahead in the fifth on Timo Perez's second
homer of the season, a drive that barely cleared the wall in right
to bring home two runs.

Atlanta put up two more runs in the fifth, taking advantage of a
throwing error by Ordonez that allowed Blanco to reach base. Maddux
failed to convert a sacrifice bunt, but Rafael Furcal followed with
a ground-rule double -- the ball hopped over the wall in left-center
-- and Franco went the other way for a double that brought home the
go-ahead runs.

Game notes
Burnitz flung his bat into the crowd for the second time in
three nights. A small child was slightly injured on Monday, but no
one was hurt when Burnitz lost his grip fouling off a pitch in the
sixth inning. Both times, the bat flew into the seats next to the
Braves dugout. ... Maddux had not gotten past the first inning the
last two times he faced the Mets. Last September, he gave up two
straight singles leading off the game and left with a hyperextended
right elbow. On April 17, he made it through the first but couldn't
go on because of a sore back. ... Maddux tied a season high with
six strikeouts.