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Cards, Yanks in charge // Ex-Brave Gant makes Atlanta pay _ twice

When the Braves reconstruct their downfall in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, they might begin by looking toward a spotless garage in suburban Atlanta.

There sits the motorcycle of Cardinals leftfielder Ron Gant. The motorcycle that drove Gant into a tree in the winter of 1994, shattering his right leg. The motorcycle that eventually drove Gant out of a Braves uniform.

Gant has made the Braves pay many times over for releasing him after his motorcycle accident. But the cost was never higher than Saturday afternoon, when Gant hit two home runs and drove in all of St. Louis' runs in a 3-2 victory over Atlanta.

The surprising Cardinals lead the defending World Series champions two games to one. Game 4 is at 7:30 tonight.

Gant no longer rides his motorcycles, but he has been reluctant to get rid of them.

"They're a little reminder for me of what happened and how quickly your life can change," Gant said. "My whole career changed on one of those things."

The Braves had just signed Gant to a one-year contract for $5.5-million when he broke his leg. With Gant out for the season and his career in jeopardy, the Braves thought they had no choice but to buy out his contract for $1-million.

"We thought Ronnie Gant was the best player in baseball. We gave him the single highest one-year contract in the history of the game," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. "Unfortunately, we didn't put a tree clause in there."

Gant eventually signed with Cincinnati and then came to St. Louis as a free agent. Over two seasons, Gant has nine home runs against Atlanta.

"If there's one person in this locker room who wants to beat the Braves more than anyone else," St. Louis rightfielder Brian Jordan said, "it's Ron Gant."

If the Braves are not careful, Gant and his friends could finish the job without leaving St. Louis.

The Braves trail in a series few figured would be difficult. Before losing the past two games to St. Louis, Atlanta won 15 of 18 post-season games.

"We can apply the pressure now," Cardinals third baseman Gary Gaetti said. "We know we're going to get at least two more games (at home), so I think the guys are feeling pretty good."

The Cardinals have to be feeling good about their pitching. While the Braves have had the most lauded pitching staff in decades, St. Louis starters Andy Benes, Todd Stottlemyre and Donovan Osborne have been more impressive.

Benes matched John Smoltz in Game 1, Stottlemyre beat Greg Maddux in Game 2, and Osborne outpitched Tom Glavine on Saturday.

"Our staff has been underrated the whole year," Osborne said.

Surviving a first inning in which he gave up a run after a leadoff single by Marquis Grissom, Osborne shut the Braves down through the seventh. During one stretch, Atlanta failed to get the ball out of the infield in 12 of 13 at-bats.

Gant hit a two-run homer in the first and a 420-foot shot in the sixth inning. It was the first time in his past 24 starts that Glavine had given up two home runs in the same game.

"Ron can get hot, as hot as anybody," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "We threw two horrible changeups."

The Braves had a chance to tie in the eighth inning. Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff led off with singles to knock out Osborne. Javy Lopez greeted Mark Petkovsek with an infield single to load the bases with no outs.

Jermaine Dye's fly drove in one run, but Petkovsek got pinch-hitter Terry Pendleton to line out to second and struck out Jeff Blauser to end the threat.

Former Oakland World Series relievers Rick Honeycutt and Dennis Eckersley, both 42 years old, retired the Braves in the ninth on five pitches.

"You got to hand it to the old-timers," Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi said. "They've gone from flamethrowers to guys who spot the ball, and they're still doing the job."

Trailing in the post-season for the first time in their past five series, the Braves pitch Denny Neagle in Game 4 tonight. Then the trio of Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine returns.

"We have the pitching to win three out of four, believe me," Cox said.