Baseball: Braves in control

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THE Atlanta Braves got help from some unlikely quarters when they beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-4 at Three Rivers Stadium on Saturday to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the National League championship series.

They went into last night's fifth game in Pittsburgh needing one victory to book a return trip to the World Series, where they would meet the winners of the American League play-offs between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Oakland Athletics. Toronto edged ahead 2-1 in Oakland on Saturday as they capitalised on an uncharacteristically error-strewn A's performance for a 7-5 victory.

In Pittsburgh, the Braves pitcher John Smoltz not only outlasted the Pirates' ace Doug Drabek on the mound, he also got two hits, stole a base and scored a run. And Otis Nixon, a utility outfielder who missed last year's World Series because he was in drug rehabilitation, equalled an NL play-off record with five consecutive hits.

Jim Leyland, the Pirates manager, defended his biggest star, Barry Bonds, whose form has slumped in the play-offs, just as it did in 1990 and 1991, and who was booed after he struck out. 'Barry Bonds is not beating himself. He had some good swings tonight,' Leyland said. Bonds, considered the best all-round player in baseball, walked twice but also failed on two big at-bats. In the series he is one for 11 with four walks.

In Oakland the A's committed three errors and threw three wild pitches, giving up three unearned runs in a game in which they out-hit the Blue Jays 13 to nine. Even the A's normally untouchable closer, Dennis Eckersley, gifted Toronto their final run.

'Mistakes kill you at any time and we literally gave them the ball game,' Oakland's manager Tony La Russa said. 'Every time we got close we gave them another run.'