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In Atlanta, Timing Is Everything : Baseball: The Braves have won seven in a row, are 25-7 at home since the All-Star break and have the Dodgers coming to town.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The words were cautious, not even as sharp as the rubber tomahawks wielded by zealots riding the Atlanta Braves’ bandwagon.

On Thursday’s eve of their showdown series for the National League West lead, members of the Dodgers and Braves refrained--for the most part, at least--from providing motivational fodder.

Atlanta outfielder Ron Gant seemed only to be telling it as it is when he reflected on his team’s seven-game win streak and said:

“We couldn’t be playing the Dodgers at a better time. This is the best we’ve been. If we stay focused, we should come out ahead.”

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The three-game series opens tonight, with the Braves still half a game ahead of the Dodgers.

In the second week of September, standings are motivation enough. In the second week of September, David Justice believes he knows where the pressure rests.

“There’s more pressure on them to win than us,” the Braves’ outfielder said of the Dodgers Thursday night. “Can you imagine the reaction in the Los Angeles papers if the Braves win? I mean, they’d be all over the Dodgers.”

There is the obvious pressure of great expectations, of course, but Mike Scioscia tried to minimize it.

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“To call us businesslike is not quite the right word, but we do have an attitude like we arefocused,” the Dodger catcher said before Thursday’s 6-2 victory at Houston--focused being a buzzword with both the Braves and Dodgers.

“I think early in the second half of the season some of us looked past the task at hand and it hurt us,” Scioscia said. “Now it’s like we’ll get to the hotel in Atlanta, we’ll get on the bus to play a game, then we’ll do it again the next day. I mean, that’s all this is.”

Not quite. Not here, at least. The city hasn not been this hot--literally and figuratively--since Gen. William Sherman fired it in 1864.

In the 94-degree sauna that was Atlanta Stadium Thursday night, a crowd of 27,794 swung tomahawks and chanted “Beat L.A.” as the Braves beat San Diego for their eighth consecutive victory at home and their 25th in 32 home games since the All-Star break.

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The series with the Dodgers, matching Tom Glavine (18-9) and Mike Morgan (11-9) in tonight’s opener, has been sold out for weeks as the Braves close in on 2 million in attendance for the first time since 1983.

Fueling the rebirth, game stories routinely run on the front page of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, which are publishing an eight-page special section on this regular-season series.

Veteran pitcher Charlie Leibrandt, who won his sixth consecutive decision Thursday night, credited the crowds for helping the Braves resist a collapse that many thought inevitable.

“I think if there was a crack in our armor it would have showed up in these last two series with San Francisco and San Diego,” he said. “We needed to be at our best and we were.

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“The whole city picked us up. The fans wouldn’t let us play anything but our best. We’re rolling. We’re in the position we want to be in: On top with a lot of momentum.”

A 41-20 record since the All-Star break has persuaded Leibrandt, Georgia and maybe the Dodgers as well.

“We know we are in a fight, and we’re going to stay in a fight until the end of the season,” Dodger relief pitcher Jim Gott said.

“We know the Braves aren’t going away, but we’ve all been around these sorts of series long enough where it’s not going to bother us. We won’t be distracted. We’re going to be in the game on every pitch.”

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Said Brett Butler: “We’re the team everybody loves to hate. Nobody in baseball wants the Dodgers to win. Everybody wants the Braves to win. That just makes us more focused.

“I mean, I’m looking forward to all the excitement. A lot of us thrive on it. I know they’re going to be booing my tail as bad as anyone else, but I can’t wait. It’ll be great.”

Darryl Strawberry agreed.

“This weekend may not be normal for Atlanta, but it’ll be normal for me,” he said. “Once you get into games like this, nothing surprises you.

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“The crowd yelling and booing at you--how can you not get up for that? I mean, they do me a favor when they boo me.”

The crowds are certain to be a factor, but injuries may be a larger one.

Jay Howell, the Dodger relief ace, is out of tonight’s game because of a sore elbow and will miss the series. Tim Belcher is expected to be replaced by Kevin Gross as the Saturday starter because of a groin strain.

The Dodgers survived eight games in a row on synthetic surfaces with a 6-2 record, but Butler, Scioscia and Eddie Murray are nursing strains and bruises to the point that Scioscia said: “We’re all glad to be going back to grass.”

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John Smoltz and Steve Avery will follow Glavine for the Braves, whose starters have allowed seven earned runs in the seven consecutive victories.

“We’ve had consistent pitching all year, but they’ve stepped up and thrown their best down the stretch,” catcher Greg Olson said, adding that the Braves have:

“Too many key people in too many key positions” for inexperience suddenly to be a factor, and “too many positive things happening for us to start playing poorly now.”

The Dodgers have been through this before, and Orel Hershiser may have been saying something about Atlanta when he reflected and said:

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“This is the kind of race that comes down to one play or one inning. Nobody wants to be the one to blow a game or situation.

“Tom Niedenfuer is still walking around with memories of 1985 and Jack Clark. All we want to do is create good memories.”

Staff writer Bill Plaschke contributed to this story.


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