ATLANTA, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Paul Bako delivered two runs with a homer and another by putting down a squeeze bunt today, helping Atlanta complete a three-game sweep of the Houston Astros with a 6-2 victory that sent the Braves into the National League Championship Series for the ninth time in 11 years.
Atlanta became the first team to reach Major League Baseball's final four and will either travel to Arizona or host St. Louis next Tuesday to start the best-of-seven NLCS.
Braves starter John Burkett extended Houston's playoff scoreless drought to 16 innings before surrendering a two-run homer to pinch-hitter Daryle Ward with one out in the seventh. Atlanta's bull pen was promptly put into action and Steve Reed, Mike Remlinger, Steve Karsay and John Smoltz were perfect over 2 2/3 innings.
Beginning with the 1991 season, when Atlanta defeated Pittsburgh in seven games to capture the National League title, the Braves have missed the NLCS only twice. One of those occasions was in 1994, when a players' strike wiped out the playoffs. The Braves were eliminated in the division round last year.
Bako, playing catcher in place of the injured Javy Lopez, became the unlikely offensive hero with an assortment of bat skills.
With two out in the second inning of a scoreless game, Houston starter Shane Reynolds was unable to cope with the lower part of the Atlanta order. Rey Sanchez, batting seventh, hit an 0-2 pitch to right for a double.
Bako then slammed a 1-2 offering over the wall in right-center to start the Braves on their way to the next round of the playoffs. Julio Franco, another unexpected contributor in the Braves' lineup after a much-traveled career, homered in the third to make it 3-0 and Bako then figured in another run in the fourth.
The other National League Division Series resumes tonight with the Arizona Diamondbacks visit the St. Louis Cardinals. They are deadlocked at 1-1.
The two American League series will be in action Saturday with the Oakland Athletics holding a 2-0 advantage over the three-time defending champion New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians tied with the Seattle Mariners, 1-1.
Tom Kelly retires
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn., Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly retired today, ending the longest active tenure among coaches or managers in professional sports.
Kelly led the Twins to a pair of World Series titles but also endured eight straight losing seasons during a 15-year reign. He cited fatigue and personal reasons when he made the announcement at a news conference in the Metrodome.
"It's been a wonderful place to work, wonderful place to raise my son," said Kelly, 51. "It's just been a fantastic ride and I just feel right now it's a good time to step aside and let someone else take over."
Owner Carl Pohlad and general manager Terry Ryan have begun a search for a replacement, although both wanted Kelly to stay. Coach Paul Molitor, who is eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2003, is an obvious possibility.
Kelly's contract expired following the 2001 season. He said the length and amount of a new contract was not an issue, adding that he probably could have filled in the amount of the check.
Jerry Sloan of the NBA's Utah Jazz now has the longest tenure among coaches or managers in sports, having started in that position in 1988. Bobby Cox is tops in baseball, having managed the Atlanta Braves since 1990.
Miami-Florida State highlights college action
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Oct. 12 (UPI) -- The Miami Hurricanes still remember that it was Florida State that received the ticket for college football's big show last season.
The top-ranked Hurricanes hope to deliver a not-so-subtle reminder to the 14th-ranked Seminoles in Saturday's marquee matchup at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Last season, Miami rallied for a 27-24 victory over Florida State at the Orange Bowl, a victory that was not assured until a 49-yard field goal attempt by freshman Matt Munyon sailed wide right on the final play.
But it was the only regular-season loss for the Seminoles, who were given the chance to play Oklahoma in the national title game at the Orange Bowl. Miami, which already had lost to Washington, had to settle for the Sugar Bowl.
Florida State (3-1) will be in the unfamiliar position of underdog, even though it owns the nation's longest current home winning streak at 37 games, dating to a 31-31 tie with Florida in 1994.
Todd Bodine wins NASCAR pole
MARTINSVILLE, Va., Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Driving a Ford Taurus, Todd Bodine won the pole todayfor Sunday's NASCAR Old Dominion 500 with a lap of 93.724 miles per hour around the .526-mile Martinsville Speedway.
It was his third pole of the season and fourth career.
Bodine's oldest brother, Geoff, won seven NASCAR modified races, four Winston Cup events and two Busch Grand National races at Martinsville. Middle brother Brett won two modified races and two Busch events at the track and Todd ran his first career sportsman race here in 1986.
Todd finally added his name to the Bodine's extended list of accomplishments with Friday's pole. Now he is hoping to join Geoff by scoring his first Winston Cup win on Sunday.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start on the outside of the first row with his best short track qualifying effort at 93.617 mph in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
Bulls keep Ron Artest
CHICAGO, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Two days after undergoing finger surgery, Chicago Bulls forward Ron Artest today had his fourth-year contract exercised for the 2002-03 season.
Artest will collect more than $1.237 million in 2002-03 as per the contract he signed as the 16th overall pick in the 1999 draft.
On Wednesday, Artest had surgery to repair his injured right ring finger and is expected to be sidelined approximately 10 weeks.
He suffered the injury in mid-August when he slammed his finger into a box during a jumping drill. The knuckle was severely swollen and surgery became the only option after it was hit repeatedly in practice.
NHL suspends two Rangers
NEW YORK, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- The New York Rangers will be shorthanded on the blue line for the next two weeks as defensemen Dale Purinton and Igor Ulanov each were suspended today for seven games without pay.
Purinton and Ulanov both were banned for separate cross-checking incidents in Tuesday's 5-2 loss to Washington. They will be eligible to return Oct. 27 against Boston.
Purinton delivered a cross-check to the head area of Capitals forward Stephen Peat at 3:39 of the first period. He was given an instigating minor, a fighting major and a misconduct.
Ulanov cross-checked Capitals left wing Steve Konowalchuk in the head area with 6:47 to play. He was assessed a major and a game misconduct.
The suspensions were announced by NHL executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, who is coming down hard on players who appear to be head-hunting.
Tyson to fight in Denmark
COPENHAGEN, Denmark, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Mike Tyson continues his quest for another shot at a world title as he returns to Europe Saturday night to meet local favorite Brian Nielsen in a 10-round heavyweight bout.
Tyson (48-3, 42 KOs, 2 no-contests) will be fighting for the third time in Europe since returning to the ring in January 1999.
Tyson was banished from boxing in August 1998 after having his boxing license suspended by the Nevada Athletic Commision for a heinous incident in a title fight against Evander Holyfield.
In that historic bout on June 28, 1997, Tyson was disqualified in the third round after he twice bit the ear of Holyfield. He has fought five times since, with mixed results.
Akers retires from national team
CHAPEL HILL, N.C., Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Michelle Akers, one of the stars of the United States women's national soccer team which captured the 1999 World Cup, announced her retirement today.
Named FIFA Player of the Century, Akers endured her fourth and fifth shoulder surgeries this year. That prompted the midfielder's decision not to return to the Carolina Courage of the Women's United Soccer Association, the league which stands as one of the legacies of the success the U.S. national squad enjoyed.
Having scored 136 goals in 153 appearances for her country, Akers is one of just four women to record 100 international tallies. The leading goal scorer in World Cup history, Akers was also part of the U.S. team which won the 1991 championship, where she received the Golden Boot as the tournament's top scorer.
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