Braves 5, Rangers 2

Thursday, June 5th 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) -- Greg Maddux is starting to look like ... well, Greg Maddux.

In the longest outing of an up-and-down season, Maddux went eight strong innings as the Atlanta Braves beat the Texas Rangers 5-2 Wednesday night.

"This is more the type of Maddux we're used to seeing," said John Smoltz, who closed out the ninth. "We expect a lot out of him ... but it's not been that way most of the year."

Maddux (5-5) threw only 71 pitches -- 53 of them for strikes -- against the free-swinging Rangers, who weren't very familiar with their opponent. Carl Everett and Rafael Palmiero were the only Texas players who had faced the Atlanta starter.

Actually, Maddux didn't feel like he had an advantage.

"I hate it," he said. "You just have to worry about throwing good pitches instead of throwing the right pitches. They hit the ball hard at people. That's the difference."

Maddux also drove in a run and made a stellar defensive play. Gary Sheffield chipped in with a two-run homer, helping send the Rangers to their season-high fifth straight loss.

Maddux has put together three straight effective starts, giving up just three runs over the last 20 innings. He finally resembles a four-time Cy Young winner and not the guy who came into the game with an uncharacteristic 4.90 ERA.

Maddux blanked the Rangers for six innings, needing only 50 pitches as the Braves built a 4-0 lead. He allowed four singles to the leading home-run team in the majors, going to two balls on just two hitters.

"Holy mackerel," Marcus Giles said. "I was looking back at the scoreboard starting the seventh inning and he had thrown 50 pitches. I've never anything like that in my life. I thought it was a typo. I couldn't believe it."

The Rangers finally broke through in the seventh, halving the deficit on a two-run single by Juan Gonzalez. Maddux escaped the inning with help from his teammates.

Einar Diaz doubled to the gap in left-center, but Chipper Jones cut off the ball before it got to the wall, whirled and threw back toward infield. Second baseman Giles took the relay in short left and threw out Gonzalez at the plate, with catcher Henry Blanco making the scoop and tag.

"I think that took a little wind out of their sails," Giles said. "Momentum is a big thing, especially late in the game."

Maddux, a 13-time Gold Glove winner, turned in his own defensive gem in the sixth. He bolted off the mound to make a diving stop and throw on a slow roller by leadoff hitter Michael Young.

Smoltz blew away the Rangers in the ninth, striking out two for his 22nd save in 23 chances.

"Unfortunately, I've seen that act before: Maddux and Smoltz," Texas manager Buck Showalter said.

The Braves went ahead 1-0 in the second on one of two errors by Texas third baseman Hank Blalock. Robert Fick was picked off second, broke for third and trotted home when Blalock couldn't handle a throw.

Sheffield made it 3-0 in the fourth against John Thomson (3-7). Giles led off with a single and Sheffield hit a 3-2 fastball deep into the left-field seats for his team-leading 15th homer.

"Sheff has been incredible," manager Bobby Cox said. "He's certainly at the top of the heap for MVP as far as I'm concerned."

Thomson went five innings, giving up three earned runs.

"There's very minimal room for error when you're up against Maddux," he said.

Notes: Maddux had gone seven innings in five previous starts.

Braves CF Andruw Jones didn't start for the third game in a row because of an ailing shoulder, ankle and knee.

Blalock had a better day at the plate with two hits, including a triple. He's 10-for-23 over his last six games.

Fick walked with the bases loaded in the seventh to drive in Atlanta's other run.

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