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Braves Beat Astros 4-2 to Even Series

ATLANTA (AP) _ Rafael Furcal hit a two-out, two-run homer in the 11th inning that sent the Atlanta Braves over the Houston Astros 4-2 Thursday and tied their NL playoff series at one game each.

Furcal has plenty of incentive to extend the series _ the shortstop is set to report to jail once the postseason ends.

With Houston on the verge of a commanding lead, Atlanta rallied from a late two-run deficit to force extra innings. Both teams went to extraordinary means _ the Astros looking to go two-up in the best-of-five series, the Braves realizing they needed a split before heading to Minute Maid Park, where Houston has won 18 straight games.

Braves rookie Charles Thomas singled with one out in the 11th off Dan Miceli and stole second. Eli Marrero popped out to the catcher, but Furcal golfed a 1-2 pitch deep into the right-field seats, flipping his bat in the air about halfway down to celebrate his first postseason homer.

Furcal was in court just hours before Game 1, where he was sentenced to 21 days in jail and 28 days in a treatment center for violating probation with his second drunken-driving arrest in four years.

``For me, I come to the ballpark, walk in the stadium and forget about everything,'' said Furcal, who had three hits and drove in three runs.

His sentence doesn't begin until the Braves' season finishes. Furcal ensured that it won't be ending with Saturday's Game 3.

``I think he felt just terrible,'' Cox said. ``Today, things worked out good for him. He got the game-winner, and that's a big boost for him.''

The Astros routed the Braves 9-3 in Game 1 and were ahead 2-0 going to the seventh with 20-game winner Roy Oswalt on the mound.

But NL East champion Atlanta fought back, managing to overcome some shaky baserunning _ two were thrown out at the plate _ and plenty of other wasted chances before Furcal came through.

The Braves outhit the Astros 14-4, holding Houston without a hit for the final 5 1-3 innings.

Realizing the importance of the game, Atlanta kept closer John Smoltz on the mound for three innings, his longest stint since September 2001. The Braves also let Smoltz bat in the bottom of the ninth, and he responded with his first hit since 1999.

``We needed someone to step up,'' Smoltz said, ``and Raffy did.''

Houston brought in closer Brad Lidge in the seventh. He went 2 2-3 innings _ his longest outing of the season _ but couldn't hold a 2-1 lead, giving up Adam LaRoche's RBI double in the eighth.

``I'm just upset at myself for not getting the job done,'' Lidge said. ``You can't think about how long you're going to be out there. For me, it doesn't matter what inning I come in.''

The Astros claimed the wild card by winning 36 of their last 46 games. Manager Phil Garner, who took over at the All-Star break when Jimy Williams was fired, stuck with the win-at-all-costs philosophy.

``We've been doing that for two months,'' he said. ``Every game has been just as important as this game.''

Antonio Alfonseca, the last of four Atlanta pitchers, got the win with a perfect 11th.

The Braves played the game under protest, contending that Garner feigned a problem with the phone line to the Astros bullpen to give Lidge more time to warm up in the seventh.

No need for a ruling now.

Houston's Jeff Bagwell homered in the first, his second extra-base hit in as many days. Before this year, he had gone 46 at-bats in the postseason without anything better than a single.

If Bagwell's first postseason homer was surprising, Raul Chavez's was downright shocking. Normally the Astros' backup catcher, he started this one and led off the third with a drive into the left-field seats off Mike Hampton to make it 2-0.

Chavez had only two career homers, the last coming on April 15, 2003.

The Astros' offense disappeared after that. Trying to hang on, Garner summoned Lidge in the seventh after Furcal's run-scoring single.

Furcal immediately stole second and went on to third when Chavez's throw bounced into center field for an error. Ninety feet away from tying it up, the Braves squandered a couple of chances.

Marcus Giles fouled off a squeeze bunt, then struck out. Lidge skipped a pitch in the dirt to J.D. Drew, but Furcal hesitated in breaking for home and was tagged out when Chavez retrieved the ball about 15 feet away and from his knees made a perfect throw to Lidge covering.

``I didn't see the ball right away, and Chavez made a great throw,'' Furcal said.

The Braves tied it up in the eighth with three hits off Lidge, who was fortunate to escape with only one run scoring. The Braves had a runner thrown out at the plate for the second inning in a row.

Drew led off with an infield single, but was thrown out attempting to steal. Chipper Jones walked and Johnny Estrada singled to right before LaRoche doubled off the wall in left-center.

With the go-ahead run at third, Andruw Jones hit a one-hopper to third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who easily threw out pinch-runner Wilson Betemit at the plate. Thomas ended the threat by striking out.

Oswalt, who led the NL in wins, gave up eight hits and a run in 6 2-3 innings.

Hampton pitched well against his former team, giving up just four hits in 6 1-3 innings. But he grimaced in pain after a pitch to Jose Vizcaino in the seventh.

After throwing a couple of warmup pitches with the trainer looking on, Hampton left the game because of tightness in his left forearm. The injury wasn't serious, but he's not expected to pitch again in the series.
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