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BRAVES 5, INDIANS 2 // Atlanta closes in

Someone call the Buffalo Bills. The Atlanta Braves are about to leave them alone at the altar of infamy.

Atlanta, the best team not to win a World Series, moved into strong position to finally do so with a 5-2 victory Wednesday night over the Cleveland Indians.

The Braves won more games than any other team during the past five years, but have been haunted by their post-season failures. They lost the World Series in 1991 and 1992, and were upset in the National League playoffs in 1993. They have been constantly, and, they say, unfairly, compared to the Bills, who lost four straight Super Bowls.

But with a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven Series, the Braves can put an end to that talk as soon as tonight with a victory in Game 5. And they'll have ace Greg Maddux on the mound trying to do so.

"It's a pretty darn good feeling," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "I like the 3-1. I like Maddux. And I like the way our guys swung the bat tonight."

The Braves broke open a 1-1 game with a three-run seventh as Luis Polonia and David Justice delivered the big hits. The Indians were done in by a tiring starting pitcher, Ken Hill; an ineffective relief pitcher, Paul Assenmacher; and a passed ball by catcher Sandy Alomar.

But that was only a sample of their problems. Their vaunted offense was shut down again, and their own pitchers failed again.

"It's very tough to win when you only get four or five hits," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said. "That's the bottom line."

It doesn't get any easier from here for the Indians. Only six teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit in Series history.

Hargrove has been second-guessed throughout the Series, and he gave critics another point of discussion when he left Hill in to pitch the seventh.

The Braves, however, sure made Cox look smart in the process.

For the games played here under AL rules, Cox moved Ryan Klesko to designated hitter and put Polonia in leftfield. Klesko homered Wednesday night and Polonia drove in the go-ahead run with a seventh-inning double.

And Cox decided to give Steve Avery a start and allow Maddux another day of rest. Avery responded by holding the Indians to one run and three hits over six innings. "I didn't fret a bit because I have all the confidence in the world in Steve Avery," Cox said. "I thought he was really outstanding."

Now the Braves will have a fully rested Maddux on the mound tonight as they seek to close out their first World Series championship since 1957, when they were the Milwaukee Braves.

"Couldn't be a better position for us with Mad Dog (Maddux) going," Avery said.

Said Hargrove: "I've faced more pleasing prospects."

The teams traded missed opportunities until the sixth when Klesko, one pitch after arguing a strike call with home-plate umpire John Hirschbeck, crushed a 1-2 pitch from Hill over the right-centerfield wall.

The Indians tied the game in the bottom of the sixth when slugger Albert Belle, who hit 50 homers during the season but has struggled in the post-season, homered to right.

The Indians might have gotten more. Eddie Murray lined a shot down the third-base line and thought he had a double, but third-base umpire Harry Wendelstedt and leftfield umpire Jim McKean both called it foul. Murray then walked and went to second when Avery stumbled off the mound and was called for a balk. The Braves intentionally walked Manny Ramirez, putting runners on first and second, but Avery struck out Herbert Perry, the former Florida Gators standout.

The seventh was decisive.

Marquis Grissom started the rally with a walk. With lefty Assenmacher ready in the bullpen, Hargrove opted to keep the right-handed Hill in to face left-handed Polonia, who laced a double to right-centerfield, scoring Grissom.

"I was ready to do my job," said Polonia, acquired from the New York Yankees late in the season. "I was glad to see the right-

hander rather than a left-hander. When they stayed with the right-hander I said, "Thank you.' "

Assenmacher didn't fare any better. He intentionally walked Chipper Jones to get to Fred McGriff, who he struck out, but not until a passed ball by Alomar allowed the runners to move up to second and third. Justice, 4-for-10 against Assenmacher coming into the Series, then singled to center to make it 4-1.

"It was a relief," Justice said.

Atlanta added another run in the ninth when McGriff and Javier Lopez doubled.

Greg McMichael pitched a scoreless seventh and eighth for the Braves, but usually dependable relief ace Mark Wohlers gave up a homer to Manny Ramirez to lead off the ninth. Wohlers also gave up a double to Paul Sorrento, and Pedro Borbon came on to get the final three outs.

The Braves also found a way to shut down Indians sparkplug Kenny Lofton, who had reached base six times on Tuesday and was batting .417 through the first three games. Wednesday, Lofton was 0-for-5.

The pitching matchup between Avery and Hill was impressive, even if it was one some people didn't want to see. Avery and Hill were on the mound because their managers opted to not bring back aces Maddux and Orel Hershiser on short rest.

Avery struggled through a 7-13 season but finished strong and threw six shutout innings against Cincinnati in the clinching game of the NLCS.

Wednesday, he was sharp again, holding the Indians to one run on three hits over six innings.

"There's something about this time of year that brings out the best in him," Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine said.

Hill was acquired from St. Louis is midseason. He had been struggling with a 6-7 record and 5.06 ERA with the Cardinals, but the Indians got his mechanics and his performance straightened out. He went 4-1 with a 3.98 ERA for Cleveland in 11 regular-season starts and was 2-0 in the post-season without allowing an earned run coming into Wednesday's game.

He couldn't keep up that pace and left after 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs on six hits.