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REDS KIDS BURY BRAVES AS COX CURSES MOUND

Sean Casey marvels at the two young players leading the Cincinnati Reds' surge.

Austin Kearns hit a bases-loaded double and Adam Dunn had a three-run homer Wednesday night, astonishing their teammates during a 9-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves.

"They're 23 years old," Casey marveled. "The way they go about their business, they seem like they're 33 instead of 23. Every night they have quality at-bats, and every night they do something special."

The longtime roommates are starting to convince Cincinnati fans that something special could be in store for the first season at Great American Ball Park, which is turning into a real home-field advantage.

Just ask the Braves, who hate the mound and what it's done to their pitching staff.

They hadn't lost consecutive games since April 11-12. They'd won 10 consecutive series when they arrived in Cincinnati with the best record in the majors.

Manager Bobby Cox complained about the mound before the first pitch of the series -- he said it seemed short -- and hasn't had many happy moments since.

He was ejected for questioning ball-and-strike calls in each of the first two games, leaving him with five ejections this season. Plate umpire Kerwin Danley threw Cox out after he changed pitchers in the fourth.

Cox spent the rest of his 62nd birthday fuming about the umpiring and the mound, which was once again checked and approved by baseball officials Tuesday.

"I don't want to make excuses, but that mound . . ." Cox said. "The relievers were saying their foot was hitting the mound before it should be hitting. It's (the Reds') mound. They can do what they want with it."

Mike Hampton (2-2) had trouble with just about everything as the Reds sent 10 batters to the plate for six runs in the fourth. He left with the bases loaded and the score tied at 3, and Kearns doubled to the wall in center off reliever Kevin Gryboski for the lead.

Gryboski threw three balls to start the at-bat, then got it to a full count before Kearns took care of a fastball.

"Just a bad pitch," Gryboski said.

Kearns drove in four runs with a pair of singles in a series-opening 9-8 win, and now has hit safely in a career-high 15 consecutive games.

Dunn got a pitch to hit in the eighth from Jung Keun Bong and sent it deep into the stands in right for his 17th homer, the most in the majors. The Reds have homered in 15 consecutive games, the third-longest streak in team history.

Dodgers tackle Rockies

LOS ANGELES -- Messing with the surging Los Angeles Dodgers these days apparently is risky business for opponents and fans.

Although All-Star closer Eric Gagne delivered another knockout punch Wednesday night in 3-2 victory over the Colorado Rockies, Dodger center fielder Jason Romano landed the most stunning blow in a wild ninth inning at Dodger Stadium.

Gagne struck out the side for third time in as many appearances while recording his fifth save in six days, 17th in as many chances and 25th in a row since last season.

That typically dominant performance, after Kazuhisa Ishii went six-plus innings, would have highlighted the Dodgers' season-high sixth consecutive victory, but one member of a crowd of 25,332 got into the act.

As team trainers tended to Gagne, who tried to barehand pinch-hitter Greg Norton's infield single, a fan rushed onto the field and headed toward left fielder Brian Jordan.

Alert because of increased incidents of fan violence the last two seasons, Romano rushed toward Jordan and intercepted the fan, punching and body-slamming the man as Dodger security personnel rushed to the scene. The fan, identified as Oscar Villanueva, 26, was taken into custody and will be charged with trespassing and stopping a major sporting event.

"I saw him coming straight at me, and I didn't know what he was going to do," said Romano, who entered in center field as a defensive replacement in the eighth as Jordan moved to left.

"I saw him raise his hand like he was going to hit (Jordan) in the back, so I just reacted. I hit him pretty good. I got him solid in the chest. I tackled him shoulder to shoulder."

Around the horn

Tony Clark singled home the winning run in the ninth inning and the Mets beat the Phillies, 5-4, ending the Phillies' three-game winning streak. . . . Jack Wilson and Brian Giles homered in a span of five pitches in the sixth inning as Kerry Wood (4-2) failed for the fourth straight start to win his 50th career game as the Pirates defeated the Cubs, 5-2. Kenny Lofton tagged and scored on an infield popup for Pittsburgh's second run. . . . Woody Williams won his ninth straight decision and Cal Eldred got Houston slugger Jeff Bagwell to ground into a game-ending double play with the bases loaded as the Cardinals beat the Astros, 7-4. Albert Pujols homered and drove in four runs for the Cardinals. . . . Ron Calloway drove in two runs with one of Montreal's six doubles, rookie Claudio Vargas won his second straight decision and the Expos sent the Marlins to their fifth loss in a row, 7-2. . . . Geoff Jenkins homered in his first three at-bats off Jake Peavy, then grounded out and struck out in two bids to hit his fourth as the Brewers pounded the Padres, 10-0. . . . Jason Schmidt threw a four-hitter in his second shutout and Marquis Grissom homered twice as the Giants beat the Diamondbacks, 6-0.

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