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It’s a Very Good Night for Avery : Baseball: Atlanta starter gives up only six hits, all singles, as Braves go into first by half a game. Gant hits home run in 3-0 victory.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two hours before the biggest game of his life, the Atlanta Braves’ Steve Avery, 21, was found on a trainer’s table.

He wasn’t working on his shoulder. He was working on his sleep.

“I laid down a little while, just to relax,” he sheepishly explained. “I don’t know, I may have dozed off.”

Shortly thereafter, the turning point occurred in the showdown between the Dodgers and Braves. Avery woke up.

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Backed by a home run that made Ron Gant so happy he leaped for joy, Avery spent nine innings calmly toying with Dodger hitters Friday night before the largest Dodger Stadium crowd in five years.

When Gary Carter ended the game by striking out on a high fastball with a futile swing that epitomized the Dodgers’ effort, Avery had completed a six-hit shutout and the Braves were back in first place with a 3-0 victory before 51,067.

Showing no more emotion than a fist pump after working out of a memorable bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning, Avery beat the Dodgers for the second time in six days while improving his career record against them to 5-0 with a 0.98 earned-run average.

In the last week, he has limited them to one run and 10 hits in 18 innings.

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“He was just playing with us out there,” said Alfredo Griffin, who had two of the six Dodgers’ hits.

“Tell you what,” said losing pitcher Tim Belcher, “He is going to be a pain in a lot of people’s sides for a lot of years.”

Avery, improving to 17-8 in his second season, said he had “a blast.”

“It makes it fun, all these people,” he said. “I kind of like being the focus out there.”

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In beating the Dodgers for the third time in four games, the Braves took a half-a-game lead with two games remaining in this series and 13 Dodger games remaining this season. It was the fourth time in seven days the lead has changed hands in the National League West.

“Where do we stand? We need to win (today),” Dodger pitcher Bob Ojeda said.

That will be tough if the Braves get more pitching performances like Avery’s. His coolness particularly showed in the sixth inning. Given a 2-0 lead in the top of the sixth on Gant’s 30th home run off Belcher, Avery gave up singles to Brett Butler and Mike Sharperson to start the bottom of the sixth.

That brought up the middle of the Dodgers’ order, which had combined to drive in 55 runs in the previous 18 games in September.

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No problem. Seventeen pitches later, Avery was out of the jam.

He threw two consecutive strikes to Darryl Strawberry before striking him out. He worked Eddie Murray to a full count before retiring him on a foul pop to first baseman Sid Bream.

After Kal Daniels reached first base on a line drive that bounced off Avery’s glove, Avery retired Juan Samuel on a fly ball to right field to end the inning.

The middle of the Dodgers’ order had one hit in 11 at-bats with only one ball leaving the infield.

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“I thought we were going to get him in that inning, one hit and he’s in deep trouble,” Griffin said.

Said Avery: “After that inning, I thought the Dodgers got down on themselves.”

Bothered by a pulled right groin muscle that had caused consecutive abbreviated starts and required stretching between innings, Belcher held his ground for 6 2/3 innings, giving up three runs and four hits.

But he walked six, giving him 10 walks in his last 9 1/3 innings.

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Avery needed little more than Gant’s sixth-inning home run, which came one inning after the Braves’ first hit of the game--a single by Avery on an 0-and-2 pitch.

Belcher had worked out of a bases-loaded jam after Avery’s hit when Lonnie Smith grounded into an inning-ending double play, a considerable feat considering Smith was batting .417 against Belcher this season.

After retiring Smith to end the fifth, Belcher retired the first two Atlanta hitters in the sixth before giving up a single to right field by David Justice.

Up stepped Gant, with four hits in 24 at-bats against Belcher. On a 2-and-1 pitch, he hit it over the left-center field fence.

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Gant leaped between first and second base in celebration of more than merely two runs. He became the third player in major league history with consecutive seasons of 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases. The feat has not been accomplished since Bobby Bonds did it in 1977-78.

One of Belcher’s walks eventually finished him, when he walked .234-hitting Mark Lemke with two out in the seventh inning. Terry Pendleton then hit a line drive into the right-field corner for a run-scoring double.

* THE BIG HIT: Ron Gant could not wait to hit 30th home run. It helped beat the Dodgers. Ross Newhan’s story, C6.


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