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Fourth Time Rates Charm For Leyland

For one unguarded moment, Jim Leyland’s piercing gaze softened to a sentimental scan of the giddy scene in the Florida Marlins clubhouse.

“It feels so good,” he said. “I’m finally involved with a team that won a playoff. I never won one before. Maybe I won’t be dumb for at least another couple of days.”

He couldn’t resist that jab at his critics. They don’t forget - and, in truth, neither does he - the playoff losses by his N.L. East Division champion Pittsburgh Pirates to Cincinnati in six games in 1990 and to Atlanta the next two years, both times in seven games.

Now in his first and, perhaps, last season with the up-for-sale, 5-year-old Marlins, he has taken them on an unprecedented journey: a wild-card entry into the playoffs, a three-game sweep of the San Francisco Giants, and a meeting with his old adversaries in Atlanta starting Tuesday.

“I don’t know how good we are and whether we can play with the Braves,” Leyland said. “But I know that we just beat a very good team in the Giants, a team that deserves a lot of respect. The Braves are the team of the decade. We’ll just have to see if the time is right for us.”

Braves are all business

Some of the young players were sneaking around the Atlanta Braves clubhouse, trying to spray their unsuspecting teammates with champagne.

“Those are the guys who’ve never been through this,” said John Smoltz, his eyes stinging from the dousing he had just received Friday night. “They’ll learn. We’ve been in this position every year.”

Every full season since 1991, that is. The Braves are heading to the N.L. Championship Series for an unprecedented sixth straight time after sweeping the Houston Astros in the best-of-5 division playoffs.

For those like Smoltz, who has been with the Braves since they were one of the game’s worst teams in the late ‘80s, the division series is a necessary evil but hardly the main prize. Anything less than a World Series title will leave Atlanta unfulfilled.

“We have so much will to win,” said Smoltz, who pitched a three-hitter as the Braves finished off a three-game sweep of the Astros with a 4-1 victory. “We act like we’re supposed to win. We’re not a team you love to hate. We just try to take care of business.”

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