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ALL TOO FAMILIAR FOR ATLANTA - JUST WHAT WENT WRONG?

SHARE ALL TOO FAMILIAR FOR ATLANTA - JUST WHAT WENT WRONG?

Maybe when the shock of yet another World Series loss wears off, the Atlanta Braves will be able to consider what it means to their place in baseball history.

"We weren't worrying about being one of the great teams," Marquis Grissom said. "We just wanted to win it, period."Instead, the Braves wound up in an all-too-familiar position: Trying to figure out what went wrong in the World Series. For all the regular-season wins (550), division titles (five) and pennants (four) since 1991, Atlanta has managed to capture only one World Series championship.

"When you lose, it's almost like there's a black cloud over your season," John Smoltz said. "But there's no black cloud over this organization. We're a very proud organization."

Still, this latest loss was especially galling. Not only did the Braves have to give up the championship won just last year - the city's first major sports title - they lost four straight games to New York after winning the first two at Yankee Stadium.

"Give the Yankees credit. They played basically flawless baseball. They deserve what they got," Ryan Klesko said. "But we can't believe it."

Does another World Series loss overshadow the Braves' many accomplishments in the past six seasons?

"Obviously, it might take a little something away, but it shouldn't," said Greg Maddux, who took the loss Saturday night when the Yankees wrapped up the Series with a 3-2 victory in Game 6. "It's very hard, very difficult to get this far. We just came up short."

The Yankees, with their deep bench and outstanding middle relief, exposed those same two areas as major weaknesses for the Braves.

During the regular season, it's easy to get by with a great starting rotation and an offense that relies on a few sluggers. In the playoffs, though, the entire 25-man roster must contribute.

Greg McMichael gave up three runs without getting an out in the eighth inning of Game 3, allowing the Yankees to break open a close game. Steve Avery walked in the winning run in Game 4. The pinch-hitters were hitless in 22 postseason at-bats. Klesko (.100) and Terry Pendleton (.222) gave the Braves hardly any production at designated hitter.

Overall, the Atlanta hitters demonstrated a maddening inability to execute the more subtle skills, like driving in runners from third with less than two outs. That's why the Braves lost even though their pitchers had a 2.33 ERA and the Yankees hit only .216 as a team.

Trailing 1-0 in Game 5, the Braves got a runner to third with one out in the ninth, but Javy Lopez grounded out when a fly ball would have tied the game. Saturday night, Pendleton hit into a double play on a 3-1 count with the bases loaded - after Yankees starter Jimmy Key had just walked in a run.

"We had a couple of chances to score some runs with guys on third base and less than two outs, and we didn't get the job done," said Grissom, the Braves leading hitter in the Series (.444). "That was the difference."

If there was a silver lining in defeat, it was the development of rookie outfielders Andruw Jones and Jermaine Dye. The 19-year-old Jones, especially, looked like a future star after hitting .400 with two homers and six RBIs.

"We had some young guys who received opportunities to perform and play and show what they're made of," general manager John Schuerholz said. "They showed we can rely on them to be a big part of our championship years. That's the good development from this."

Now, for the bad news. Smoltz, who won 24 games during the regular season and four more in the postseason, was eligible for free agency as soon as Mark Lemke popped up to Charlie Hayes for the final out Saturday.

Resigning Smoltz is imperative to keeping together the team's most dominating presence: The starting rotation.

"A lot has been played about loyalty and making the right decision," Smoltz said. "But deep down, John Smoltz and his family have to take time with my agents to decide what's the best avenue. You never want to close any doors, never want to be narrow-minded."