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Atlanta 6, Houston 2

ATLANTA, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Paul Bako delivered two runs with a homer and another by putting down a squeeze bunt Friday, 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.

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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.

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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.

"It was a fastball that caught some of the plate," Bako said. "I got good wood on it."

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.

Andruw Jones singled with one out and moved to third on a single by Sanchez. Bako was called upon to put down a bunt and he did so perfectly as Jones raced in with Atlanta's fourth run.

Bako has made the most of his opportunity since subbing for Lopez. He has batted .400 in nine starts since Lopez went down the final week of the regular season.

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After Houston closed within 4-2 in the seventh, Franco lined a single to right in the eighth and Chipper Jones homered into the right-field seats to complete the scoring.

Atlanta entered the series having lost seven straight playoff games dating to the 1999 World Series and this year the Braves became the first team in major league history to have a losing record at home and still make the playoffs.

But the showing of Atlanta's pitching staff against the Astros makes the Braves a solid contender to win it all.

"You face (Greg) Maddux, (Tom) Glavine and Burkett," said Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, who is seven for 54 in his postseason career. "They speak for themselves. They have a plan. They stick to their plan. Their defense sticks to their plan. There is a reason why they are successful the way they are.

"Besides talent, I think Bobby Cox is one of the best managers in the game. A lot of things go unnoticed over there."

Houston won its fourth NL Central title in five years, taking two of three in St. Louis on the final weekend of the regular season. But the Astros have failed to make it past the division series in each of their last four trips to the playoffs. Atlanta also knocked Houston out in 1997 and 1999.

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Houston won just three of its final 15 games.

"You just accept it," Astros manager Larry Dierker said. "I couldn't be happier about the way we played in the regular season. Honestly, in the postseason, I felt like we had a better team than the Braves."

Burkett made only the second playoff start of his career and he has won them both. He gave up six hits in 6 1/3 innings Friday, walking two and striking out four. Burkett also was the winning pitcher in the only playoff victory in the history of the Texas Rangers, that coming against the New York Yankees five years ago.

"I came in a lot early in the count," Burkett said. "I thought we pitched away a lot the first two games and I wanted to change that up a bit. When you are up 2-0, you want to win the third game. If you lose, the momentum switches."

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