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STOP BRAVES? IT'S UP TO YOU, NEW YORK

After beating the Cleveland Indians in the World Series last year, the Atlanta Braves proclaimed themselves "the team of the '90s," even had the phrase engraved on their championship rings.

That struck some as a touch premature, considering that the decade was only half spent. But the defending world champions took another step toward living up to that boast Thursday night, eliminating the St. Louis Cardinals and earning a return trip to the Fall Classic with a convincing 15-0 win in Game Seven of the National League Championship Series.

In the eighth inning the sellout crowd literally broke into song. The tune? "New York, New York," of course.

The Braves have the chance to defend their championship beginning Saturday night at Yankee Stadium because they were able to reel off three straight wins after falling behind three games to one. There are only the eighth team to accomplish that in a best-of-seven series.

"When we were down three games to one, honestly, we still liked our chances," said Tom Glavine, who shut out the Cardinals on three singles through seven innings. "We always seem to respond when our backs are against the wall."

When the Braves' celebration started, it suddenly seemed so long ago that Dennis Eckersley had pumped his fist in joy after getting the last out of Game Four, putting the Cardinals in the enviable position of needing just one win in the next three games to go to the World Series.

Rather than winning one, the Cardinals were outscored, 32-1, while scratching out 17 singles. Their only run came in Game Six, on a wild pitch.

There will be those who will accuse the Cardinals of choking, but that wasn't it. What happened was that St. Louis was an underdog that ran into three of the best pitchers in baseball -- John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Glavine -- each at the top of his game.

The three combined for an 0.42 earned run average in the last three games, allowing 16 hits and one walk in 21 2/3 innings while striking out 17.

The wonder isn't that the Cardinals lost. It's that they managed to throw a scare into the Braves in the first place.

"It's just another example of the Atlanta Braves coming through with flying colors," said St. Louis outfielder Brian Jordan. "Even when we only needed one win, we were aware of who we were playing. We were aware of their experience. We were aware that they were throwing three Cy Young pitchers at us."

Said Eckersley: "I think the Braves are the best team in baseball. They proved it to us. They didn't have to beat the hell out of us to prove it, though."

It took just the first inning to start the Braves thinking about what to pack for New York. Atlanta sent 10 batters to the plate, scored six runs and never looked back.

Starter Donovan Osborne was knocked out after two-thirds of an inning, tying the NLCS record for the briefest outing by a starting pitcher (San Francisco's Rick Reuschel set the record in 1989 against the Cubs).

Just imagine what would have happened if St. Louis manager Tony La Russa had started Osborne on three days rest as he originally planned.

"It was one of those nights," Osborne said. "It hurts, that's for sure. It's happened to me before, but never in the seventh game.

"The thing is that the Braves are a great team. And we almost fooled them. We almost had them. But we couldn't get it done."

Marquis Grissom led off with a hard single to center against Osborne and Mark Lemke followed by drilling a double into the leftfield corner.

For some reason, Chipper Jones decided to bunt at the first pitch he saw. Cox screamed at him from the dugout to swing the bat and he grounded out.

Then it was the Cardinals' turn to have a brain cramp. Fred McGriff hit a grounder to shortstop Royce Clayton. Grissom broke for the plate, then stopped. Instead of concentrating on the lead runner, Clayton got Lemke in a rundown. Lemke was tagged out, but Grissom scored easily.

Even at that, the Cards weren't in any particular trouble with two outs and a runner on first. But Osborne didn't get another out.

Javy Lopez walked. Jermaine Dye and Andruw Jones singled. Osborne hit Jeff Blauser with a pitch to load the bases.

Even then, the Cardinals were only down by three and still in the game. Not for long. Glavine hit a sinking line drive to left. Ron Gant tried for a shoestring catch and missed. The ball rolled to the wall. Glavine pulled up at third with a triple.

Andy Benes relieved Osborne but, by then, it was too late. The next eight innings were merely a formality.

The Atlanta crowd gave a standing ovation when Ozzie Smith came to bat for the last time in his career. Glavine stepped off the mound to let Smith soak in the applause, and the future Hall of Famer waved his helmet.

Smith, pinch-hitting in the sixth, fouled out. The 41-year-old shortstop had previously announced his retirement, and was hugged by his teammates in the dugout after batting.

"It would have been great to win another ring, but I'll get up tomorrow and get on with my life," Smith said.

Weather warning in Bronx

NEW YORK -- The first World Series game at Yankee Stadium in 15 years may be delayed another day by heavy rain and gusting winds of up to 40 mph.

A special weather statement issued today by the National Weather Service warned that "the opening game of the World Series may be in jeopardy" due to a storm that will arrive in the city shortly after midnight.

"It's nearly 100 percent that we'll get rain during the day Saturday, and that will probably continue into the night time," meteorologist Mike Woolridge said.

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