ATLANTA -- So far gone were the Los Angeles Dodgers' chances of beating the Atlanta Braves 90 minutes into yesterday's game that Darryl Strawberry and Brett Butler spent the final three innings in the dugout, resting for the remainder of the pennant race.
Their manager, Tom Lasorda, had conceded.
A banner above left field read, "L.A. has fallen and it can't get up."
The last of a three-game series between the teams chasing the National League West championship had effectively ended when Sid Bream hit a grand slam over Strawberry's head in the top of the first, giving Atlanta a 5-0 lead.
Braves pitcher Steve Avery (16-8) took care of the rest in Atlanta's 9-1 victory, shutting out the Dodgers for eight innings and finishing with a four-hit masterpiece that defied his age -- 21 -- and provided further proof that Atlanta has come of age.
The Braves' lead over Los Angeles increased to 1 1/2 games with 19 to play, including three Friday through Sunday in Dodger Stadium. Atlanta won the weekend series, two games to one.
"They threw the first punch and hit us good," Lasorda said. "But we didn't lose the fight, just the round."
The Braves picked up yesterday where they'd left off the night before, when Ron Gant's bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 11th inning beat the Dodgers, 3-2.
Los Angeles pitcher Ramon Martinez started his own trouble with a one-out walk to Mark Lemke, then gave up singles to Terry Pendleton and David Justice, the latter scoring Lemke.
Martinez then hit Gant with a pitch to load the bases for Bream, a key to the Pittsburgh Pirates' NL East championship last year who has been sidelined for two months of the Braves' pennant drive after knee surgery.
He was batting .188 since coming off the disabled list Aug. 28 and hadn't homered since June 16. Saturday night, manager Bobby Cox yanked him for a pinch hitter in the third inning.
"It's been a tough road back," Bream said. "I just thank the Lord that he gave me this chance today."
Martinez's first three pitches were balls. The fourth, a strike, was a fastball. Bream expected another fastball and got it.
"I knew it was gone when I hit it," he said.
A veteran who keeps an even keel, he pumped his right fist twice as he rounded second base, a crowd of teammates already huddled around home plate waiting for his arrival.
"There was emotion, a little excitement," he said. "Geez, I'd just hit a grand slam, OK?"
The Braves scored three more runs in the third and another in the sixth to take a 9-0 lead. None of the four was earned, helped by two walks and two Dodgers errors.
Relaxed by the big lead, Avery (16-8) was untouchable. He struck out six and didn't walk a batter. He said he didn't have the usual "pop" on his fastball, but his mix of pitches, location and poise was excellent.