Phillies Show Fight, Display Power, And Rout Braves A Bench-clearing Brawl And A Four-homer Barrage Marked A Win That Gained Them Important Ground.

Posted: July 31, 1999

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves' not being in first place in the National League East is about as unlikely a thought as . . . well, Paul Byrd's throwing punches and being labeled a troublemaker.

Strange but true. The fighting Phillies knocked the Braves out of first place when they hammered their way to an emotional 9-2 victory over the perennial division champions last night at raucous Turner Field.

Byrd pitched a seven-inning gem against the team that waived him a year ago, and he was backed by four home runs as the Phils improved to a season-high 11 games over .500.

The Braves trail the sizzling New York Mets by a half-game. This is the first time they have not been in first place after the all-star break since 1994.

The game was marred by a bench-clearing brawl in the top of the fourth inning.

Tempers had begun to boil when Byrd hit Braves catcher Eddie Perez with a pitch in the bottom of the third. It was the second time in six days that Byrd had hit Perez.

A half-inning later, Perez tried to twist Byrd into a pretzel when Byrd came to the plate to hit. That emptied the benches.

"We won the game, and that's the important thing," said Phillies ace Curt Schilling, a major participant in the brawl. "This doesn't send any message that we already didn't know. We're a team, and we take care of each other."

Said manager Terry Francona: "We're at a point now where we're not going to back down from anyone."

After the game, Byrd looked shaken.

"It's sad the way things turned out," he said.

When Byrd was with the Braves, his locker was next to Perez's. He considers Perez a friend, but he said he had to pitch inside to have success.

In the bottom of the third, Byrd went inside on Perez and ended up plunking him on the left elbow. Perez, who had been hit by Byrd on Sunday in Philadelphia, too, glared at the pitcher and shouted a few choice words. The benches cleared, but peace quickly was restored.

A half-inning after Perez was hit, Atlanta starter John Smoltz retaliated by drilling Alex Arias. Smoltz was ejected - without warning - by home-plate umpire Jerry Meals. Incensed, Smoltz had to be restrained, and he was led off the field by teammates.

"It was a joke," Smoltz said of his ejection. "He has no business throwing me out without warning."

The Phillies agreed.

"He had a right to do what he did," Schilling said, referring to Smoltz. "It should have been over with right there."

"I thought Smoltz did what he had to do," Francona said.

The bad feelings did not subside after Smoltz left.

The first batter that new pitcher Russ Springer had to face was Byrd. As Byrd stepped into the batter's box, he could be seen calmly saying something to Perez.

"I was trying to tell him I wasn't trying to hit him," Byrd said.

Within seconds, what seemed like a harmless conversation turned ugly. Perez blew his cool, started shouting at Byrd, and shoved his catcher's mitt in Byrd's face.

Punches began to fly, and both benches and bullpens emptied quickly. The first person off the Phillies' bench was Schilling, who attempted to pull the rugged Perez off the slightly built Byrd. Schilling ended up on the bottom of a huge pile, but he may have saved Byrd from taking a beating.

Schilling blamed Perez for the incident.

"It should have been over with [after Smoltz hit Arias]," Schilling said. "Some guys need to take a class and learn how to play the game."

Perez was the only player ejected.

The fight was the most dramatic event on a wild night that included the ejection of Atlanta manager Bobby Cox for arguing a call at second base in the third inning, along with a 16-minute delay because of a power outage, also in the third.

That Byrd was the focus of so much anger was difficult to fathom. He had pitched for the Braves in 1997 and 1998 and has many friends on the team. What's more, the Bible-toting Byrd is one of the more gentle and soft-spoken people in baseball. He often speaks of going into the Christian ministry.

Byrd's Bible study partner is Ned Yost, the Braves' third-base coach. Yost had Byrd in a headlock during the brawl.

Despite his saintly exterior, Byrd is not afraid to throw inside, and that angers some opponents. He leads the majors with 13 hit batsmen.

After the fight, Byrd kept his emotions in check despite being booed lustily by the sellout crowd of 48,605.

"I was frustrated with what happened, and at the same time, I felt like the whole crowd was against me," he said emotionally. "I was mistaken for the batboy many times in this place. With everyone against me, I just started praying.

"Being a Christian, I know who my Dad is. He knew I wasn't trying to hit Eddie, and He got me through this."

Schilling was amazed at how well Byrd rebounded after the melee.

"That's hard to do," he said. "Your adrenaline is so high with everything that's happening. But he settled down and pitched his butt off. We needed this game. He knew it, and he clutched up."

Byrd (12-6) allowed a run in the bottom of the fourth as the Braves cut into what had been a 4-0 lead. However, he settled down and pitched shutout ball for the remainder of his stint.

The victory was Byrd's second this season against his former team. More important, it might have gotten him back on track. He had won just one of his last seven starts and had compiled a 7.05 ERA in his last five starts.

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