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Pittsburgh narrows the gap

Tim Wakefield got his knuckleball over the plate and the Pittsburgh Pirates didn't knuckle under to the Atlanta Braves.

Facing the possibility of falling behind three games to none, the Pirates instead rallied twice Friday night to beat the Braves 3-2 and cut their lead in the National League playoffs to 2-1.

For the Pirates, it was a welcome return to the form that won them 96 games this season and three consecutive division titles.

Don Slaught hit a solo homer, Jeff King stroked a run-scoring double and Andy Van Slyke contributed a sacrifice fly as the Pirates finally showed some signs of breaking out of their offensive malaise. And they flashed their trademark solid defense, turning two key double plays and flagging down a handful of hard-hit balls.

"That," manager Jim Leyland said, "was the Pittsburgh Pirates you saw playing tonight."

Wakefield, a 26-year-old rookie, kept the Braves off balance enough with his knuckleball _ a five-hit complete game _ and kept them off base with his fielding.

Three times he made stunning defensive plays (two on line drives back to the mound) to go along with his baffling pitching.

"It's exciting to finally have a dream come true," said Wakefield, a former FIT All-American, "to be a rookie taking part in the league championship series.

"And to have a manager with the confidence in you to start Game 3 _ I'm not a person to show a lot of emotion, but this is very special to me. We're just a bunch of grownups playing a kids' game, and sometimes you have to let that emotion out."

Leyland said he was committed to stick with Wakefield, who threw 109 pitches, 77 of them strikes.

"If I would have taken Wakefield out, I probably would have been snipered," Leyland said. "And it probably would have been my mother."

In the first two games of the best-of-seven series, the Pirates hit just .188 (12-for-64) and scored six runs. They came alive Friday against Braves starter Tom Glavine and two relievers with eight hits _ three by leadoff man Gary Redus _ and just in time, because no team has overcome a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs.

Game 4 is tonight at 8:35 and features a rematch of the Game 1 starters _ Atlanta's John Smoltz and Pittsburgh's Doug Drabek.

Braves manager Bobby Cox said he thought his team handled the knuckleball well _ "as well as we can hit him." He pointed to homers by Sid Bream and Ron Gant, a near miss by Jeff Blauser and several screaming line drives.

"Several balls we hit were right at people," Cox said. "That hurt us."

For a change, the Pirates weren't the ones talking about what might have been. Even the middle of their lineup showed signs of life _ Van Slyke scored a run and drove in another, Barry Bonds (still sporting a dismal .111 series average) moved a runner up with a fly ball and King had a big hit to put the Pirates ahead.

The Braves scored first for the third consecutive game when Bream drove a Wakefield knuckleball over the right-centerfield wall in the fourth. Bream's homer, his third career post-season shot, came after Slaught failed to hold a foul tip on the preceding 2-2 pitch.

The Pirates _ and Slaught _ evened things up in the fifth. Slaught drilled Glavine's first pitch over the wall in left-centerfield. It was only the seventh homer allowed by Glavine this season.

Pittsburgh went ahead _ for the first time this series and the first time in 42 post-season innings _ in the sixth.

Van Slyke led off with a double down the rightfield line, just his second hit of the series. Bonds moved Van Slyke to third with a deep flyout to center. And King brought the run home with a double to right-center, his second hit of the series.

The Braves tied it at 2 in the seventh. Gant, who hit a grand slam in Game 2, crushed a Wakefield pitch into the second deck of the leftfield stands with two outs.

But the Pirates, flashing some of the spunk missing in Games 1 and 2, rallied again in their half of the seventh. Redus singled to left-center with one out, and Jay Bell followed with a double to the leftfield corner. That put runners on second and third and put Glavine on the bench, as Cox called on Mike Stanton.

Cox had Stanton pitch to Van Slyke, who delivered a long fly to center, allowing Redus to score and Bell to advance to third. Bonds flied to center to end the inning. It was the 27th consecutive time he failed to get a hit with runners in scoring position during post-season play.

Both teams failed to convert early scoring opportunities, thanks to some clutch pitching and sharp fielding.

Redus led off the bottom of the first with a triple high off the centerfield wall but was stranded when the next three Pirates _ Bell, Van Slyke and Bonds _ failed to hit the ball out of the infield.

The Braves put the first two runners on base in the second when David Justice singled and Bream reached on an error by second baseman Jose Lind. But Gant grounded into a double play and Damon Berryhill flied out.

Atlanta's Mark Lemke led off the third with a double but was thrown out when Wakefield pounced on Glavine's bunt and fired to third. Otis Nixon then walked to put runners on first and second, but Blauser hit into a 5-4-3 double play.

Glavine seemed to be laboring through the early innings. He went to a three-ball count on six of the first seven batters. Glavine left with one out in the seventh, having allowed seven hits and three runs.

Shut out in the final three games of the '91 series _ by 1-0, 1-0 and 4-0 scores _ the Pirates hadn't scored at home in the post-season since a solo run in the eighth inning of their 5-1 victory in Game 1 last year. No major-league team ever had gone scoreless in so many consecutive post-season innings at home.