The ways of the Atlanta Braves remain curious.

Tonight, they beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 10-3, before 35,583, and increased their lead over the defending world champions to 1 1/2 games in the National League West. The victory completed a sweep of a two-game series that was small in games, but large in importance.

But these are only the straightforward elements. In this strange baseball season in Georgia, these Braves have moved every way but straight.

Tonight's curiosities found a .223-hitting catcher, Bruce Benedict, hitting a game-clinching, sixth-inning grand slam and a pitcher, Rick Mahler (9-9), who hadn't won in 10 starts, finally winning a game.

When it was over, the crowd was shaking Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Braves owner Ted Turner was shaking hands behind the dugout with his grandstand mate, Olivia Newton-John.

Curious, these Braves.

To top it off for the team on top with only 22 games to play in this wild western race (Los Angeles has 21 games left), tonight's losing pitcher was Fernando Valenzuela (17-12), who lost his third straight game and gave up three home runs. He had not given up more than one home run in any of 31 previous starts.


"I feel better now than I did the last time when the Dodgers left here," said Atlanta Manager Joe Torre. He was speaking about Aug. 1, when the Dodgers had just completed a four-game sweep to move within 6 1/2 games of the Braves, a team that stresses the streak. (Remember the record 13-0 start of the season? And the 2-19 stretch from July 30 to Aug. 18? Curious.)

"If people don't think we are for real now," said Braves' reliever Steve Bedrosian, who pitched a fast ball-filled final 3 2/3 innings, "something is wrong with them."

The Braves led, 4-0, after two innings. Bob Horner hit his 30th homer in the first, a two-run drive to center. Second baseman Glenn Hubbard homered to left (No. 9) in the second and Claudell Washington followed several hitters later with a run-scoring single.

The Dodgers scored one run in the third and the fourth innings to close to 4-2. The first run scored when shortstop Rafael Ramirez dropped a slow roller hit by Valenzuela (his 32nd error of the year), allowing Mike Scioscia to score from third. The second scored on Pedro Guerrero's 29th homer of the year.

Valenzuela has lost three of the four games he has pitched in this home-run hitters paradise. By the sixth inning tonight, he seemingly had recovered. When he got out the first two hitters in the sixth, he had retired 12 in a row.

Then Bob Watson walked and Jerry Royster doubled. That brought up Hubbard, the No. 7 hitter. With first base open and the averages dictating Benedict an easier out, Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda called for an intentional walk.

Enter Benedict. Perhaps his fourth-inning drive that left fielder Dusty Baker leaped high over the fence to catch should have been given more consideration.

"I thought I had a better chance to get Hubbard than Benedict," Valenzuela said through an interpreter.

"It was the logical decision," said Benedict, with home run humility.

Benedict hit a 1-0 fast ball for his third home run of the season, and his most important, too. It increased Atlanta's lead from 4-2 to 8-2, and knocked the verve out of Valenzuela and the drive out of the Dodgers.

Now the Dodgers head for Houston and a Friday game against Nolan Ryan.

The Braves host Cincinnati for three in a town that now gives them curtain calls, after 12 years of closing the curtain at the very mention of their once-mediocre name. Curious.

"They were psyched against us," Baker said correctly.