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WAKEFIELD’S KNUCKLER BAFFLES BRAVES

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The Pittsburgh Pirates were asleep, now they feel like they're dreaming. That's what a visit to the Wakefield of Dreams will do for you.

Rookie knuckleballer Tim Wakefield supplied a wake-up call and Andy Van Slyke answered it, finally delivering a huge hit and even bigger RBI as the Pirates fought off almost sure elimination with a 3-2 victory over Atlanta Friday night in Game 3 of the National League playoffs.Wakefield, the first rookie in nine years to start an NL playoff game, pitched a five-hitter for the first complete game by a Pirate since Bert Blyleven against Cincinnati in the series clincher in 1979. That was the last time Pittsburgh made it to the World Series.

Until Wakefield's remarkable performance, the Pirates didn't even look like they'd make it to Game 5 of this series. Now, they've not only proved they could score against Atlanta at home in the postseason, but also that they could win.

"He's having a ball, a lot of fun, and we're just along for the ride," Van Slyke said. "He's really had only one bad game since he's been here and he was great. He threw the knuckleball for strikes all night."

The Pirates, who won only after stopping a 31-inning playoff scoreless streak at home on Don Slaught's solo homer in the fifth, will ask ace Doug Drabek to tie the series Saturday in Game 4. The Braves counter with John Smoltz, who beat Pittsburgh 5-1 in Game 1.

Van Slyke, in a deep funk with only one hit in 11 at-bats and criticized for a lack of production, doubled to start the Pirates' sixth off Tom Glavine and scored on Jeff King's one-out double, making it 2-1. The lead didn't hold up, but neither did Glavine, even after Ron Gant got him back in the game with a tying homer in the seventh.

Glavine, 4-0 against Pittsburgh this season but only a 1-4 pitcher in the postseason, got into trouble in the seventh when Gary Redus - 3 for 3 with a walk - singled with one out. Jay Bell doubled him to third.

Van Slyke didn't get a hit but he didn't need to, sending a deep drive to right field on a two-strike pitch from left-hander Mike Stanton that allowed Redus to score easily. It was Van Slyke's first RBIof the series and only his seventh in four playoffs.

"He (Stanton) made me look real bad in Atlanta, and I was trying not to strike out," Van Slyke said. "I was able to get the ball up and almost hit it out."

Few rookies in major-league history have ever been put in a tougher position than Wakefield, the first Pirates rookie starter in the playoffs since John Candelaria in 1975 and the first overall since Philadelphia's Charles Hudson in 1983.

Even manager Jim Leyland admitted the Pirates were all but done if they didn't win Friday, for no team has ever rallied from a 3-0 deficit in a playoff series. Thanks to Wakefield, the Pirates won't have to.

"We tried everything we could to get something going against him," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "We tried moving up in the batter's box, everything. Obviously, it didn't work."

Wakefield, 6-0 at home this season, gave up Sid Bream's solo homer in the fourth and Gant's second homer in as many games in the seventh. It's the first time time Wakefield, 8-1 during the season, has allowed two homers in a game and were only the fourth and fifth he's given up in the majors.

But the homers were nearly all the damage Atlanta did to the knuckleballer, who baffled the Braves with dipping, darting knuckler after knuckler - even after Atlanta recruited 50-year-old minor league pitching coach Bruce Dal Canton to throw knuckleballs in batting practice for two days.

"We finally showed why we've won 96 games," Van Slyke said. "We're a good team, but we haven't been showing it."