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Before they won their division with regularity, there was actually a time when the Braves didn't win championships so easily.

In 1991 and '93, Atlanta went down to the final day of the season before clinching the title.

"I'd rather have a comfortable lead," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "But two of the funnest years for me were '91 and '93. Maybe that's because when I look back, we came out on the right end of the stick. I'm not sure how much fun it would be if we didn't win."

Maybe he'll get a chance to find out. For the first time in six years, the Braves enter the final two weeks of the season with a team in close pursuit.

The New York Mets are just one game behind with 12 games left in the regular season. The teams meet head-to-head six times, beginning tonight (7:30, ESPN, WTBS) with the start of a three-game series at Turner Field.

"It should be an exciting two weeks. I'm sure they know we're coming," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said. "Actually, I'm hoping we play them a few more times than six."

Indeed, the Braves (93-57) and Mets (92-58) have the two best records in the NL, so there's a strong possibility the loser in the division race will still get to play as the wild card.

That occurred two years ago, when the Braves won the East by nine games over Florida, but were beaten in the NL Championship Series by the wild-card Marlins.

While the Braves are protective of their unprecedented streak of seven straight division titles, they would gladly trade places with the Mets if it meant winning a World Series title like the '97 Marlins.

"The guys in here want to keep it going," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "But the main focus is the World Series. If there's a choice between winning the East Division or winning a world championship, we'll take the world championship. These games may not mean anything in the big picture."

Then again, the wild card is not a guaranteed consolation prize. The Cincinnati Reds are 3 1/2 games back and could still make a run.

"If either team should slip up and get swept," Jones said, "all of a sudden they're in a dogfight with the Reds."

The Mets won't have to face Atlanta's most reliable pitcher, Kevin Millwood, but they will get three Cy Young winners: John Smoltz (9-8), Glavine (11-11) and Greg Maddux (18-8).

"I'd like to pitch against them, but it just didn't work out that way," Millwood (18-7, 2.78 ERA) said. "We have three pretty good guys going against them. I like our chances."

New York counters with Rick Reed (10-4), Hershiser (13-10) and Leiter (11-11).

Braves outfielder Brian Jordan, who leads the team with 106 RBIs, didn't play Sunday because of lingering pain in his right hand.

Yankees promote Newman

NEW YORK -- Mark Newman, sought by other teams for general manager vacancies, has been appointed director of baseball operations for the New York Yankees.

Newman's promotion, which has not been officially announced by the Yankees, makes him second in the team's hierarchy behind George Steinbrenner.

The move was reported Sunday by the New York Times and Newsday.

Newman has been influential with Steinbrenner in recent years, and both papers said the appointment likely will not change the way the team is run.

However, it is a sign general manager Brian Cashman is falling out of favor with Steinbrenner. It has been widely reported that Steinbrenner was upset with Cashman for losing arbitration cases against shortstop Derek Jeter and closer Mariano Rivera.

Cashman, though, will still be responsible for contract negotiations and trade talks.

Rockies name O'Down GM

DENVER -- Vowing to put a championship team on the field every season, Dan O'Dowd was introduced as general manager of the Colorado Rockies, concluding a month-long search.

The 41-year-old O'Dowd is considered one of the bright young executives in the game.

He was assistant general manager of the Cleveland Indians from 1993-98 but was out of baseball this season as he pursued a goal of becoming a major league general manager.

O'Dowd, who signed a five-year contract, replaces Bob Gebhard, who resigned Aug. 20.

Athletics' sale deadline passes

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The deadline for the sale of the Oakland Athletics passed Monday with the team's future still uncertain.

Oakland government officials and the current owners, Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann, have exchanged letters about the team's fate since major league owners last week failed to vote on the proposed $122.4 million sale of the club to a locally based group.

Officials of the Joint Powers Authority, which oversees the publicly owned sports complex where the A's play, asked Schott and Hofmann to either extend the sales deadline or promise to keep the team in Oakland until at least 2004, three years beyond their current agreement.

Without taking any action, Schott and Hofmann said through their lawyers that they needed more time to respond to the requests.

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