Larkin #039;creams#039; Braves, 3-2

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 21, 2004

CINCINNATI - Barry Larkin didn't mind the face full of shaving cream. It had been a long time since he did anything worthy of a postgame prank.

The Reds' struggling captain singled home a pair of runs - his first RBIs since opening day - to set up Cincinnati's 3-2 victory Tuesday over the Atlanta Braves.

During a postgame interview, teammate Juan Castro sneaked behind Larkin and filled the side of his face with a plate's worth of shaving cream, a traditional way to celebrate a big moment. In his 19th season, Larkin has had few of those.

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He brought a .167 average into the game, and hadn't driven in a run since his RBI groundout in the season opener. Larkin, who turns 40 next week, has spread out his stance in a concession to age, but hasn't yet discovered the best way to hit out of it.

''I've probably changed three or four times already,'' he said. ''Hitting .160 makes you think a lot up there. I've been thinking. It's a struggle. I'll definitely take today.''

Sean Casey added three hits, including two doubles off John Thompson (1-1), helping Jose Acevedo recover from one bad pitch early in the game.

Acevedo (2-0) has re-emerged after being written out of the team's plans the last two years. The 26-year-old Acevedo won a spot in the rotation during spring training, and has made three solid starts.

''I don't know where he's been the last two years,'' Braves manager Bobby Cox said. ''He has all the pitches. He was terrific.''

The right-hander struck out six and allowed three hits in seven innings, including Marcus Giles' two-run homer in the third. Giles has been one of the Braves' best hitters so far, batting .385 in the last 13 games.

Acevedo seems to have gotten over his propensity to implode after something bad happens.

''You can't beat three quality starts, and that's what he's given us,'' manager Dave Miley said.

Atlanta managed only four hits in all, including two infield singles, with Acevedo setting the tone.

''He makes you chase bad pitches,'' said Andruw Jones, who struck out twice and hit into a double play. ''If you chase them, he's going to keep throwing them.''

Todd Jones pitched a perfect eighth. Danny Graves, who returned to the bullpen this season after a failed stint in the rotation, got the last three outs for his seventh save in Cincinnati's eight wins.

Thompson, who hadn't started against the Reds since 1998 with Colorado, gave up six hits in seven innings.

Casey's double over first base drove in a run in the fourth, and Javier Valentin and Ryan Freel opened the fifth with singles. After Acevedo's sacrifice bunt advanced the runners, Larkin put the Reds ahead with a two-out single up the middle.

Acevedo and the bullpen took it from there, limiting the Braves to one walk and one infield single over the last six innings. No runner reached second after Giles' homer.

''The talk in spring training was that our starting pitching would be the weakest part of this team, but they've carried us so far,'' Larkin said. ''Our pitchers have been doing great. We've said all along we'll go as far as our pitching takes us.''

The Braves started their longest trip of the season with a lineup in flux.

Chipper Jones strained a hamstring Sunday and is expected to be sidelined for at least five games, costing the Braves their most versatile hitter. Atlanta has no plans at the moment to put him on the disabled list.

While he sat, J.D. Drew returned to the lineup after missing a week with a strained hamstring. Also, shortstop Rafael Furcal was back after missing eight starts with a sore lower back.

Drew didn't do much - 0-for-2 with a pair of walks - but Furcal looked like he was back to full speed. He singled in the third inning, stole second base and scored on Giles' second homer of the season deep into the lower deck in left field for a 2-0 lead.

Notes: The Braves play 12 games in 13 days in four cities. They have only three home games from April 12 to May 3. … Chuck Harmon, the Reds' first black player, was honored on the 50th anniversary of his debut. The club unveiled a plaque for Harmon, who threw a ceremonial pitch. … 3B Brandon Larson, on the DL with turf toe, worked out with the Reds. Larson is on a minor league rehab assignment. The Reds wanted to get a sense of how he was coming along. Larson will rejoin Triple-A Louisville on Wednesday.