St. Louis won the National League pennant last week in a style befitting its heritage of speed, defense and pitching, which came as no surprise to Joe Torre, manager of defeated Atlanta. "Richie Allen came over in 1970, got 34 homers and was gone the next season," said Torre, a Cardinal that year himself. "That should tell you something."
The Cardinals certainly told the Braves something last week. Holding speedy, powerful Atlanta to one stolen base and no homers, St. Louis whipped the Braves three games to none in the championship series and advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1968. The Cards not only came to play but to leave: Their bags were packed before the third game. "We had a feeling we'd win it tonight," Leftfielder Lonnie Smith said during a noticeably low-key celebration. "We had it planned from the first day of the playoffs."
Planned to perfection. Of their 34 hits, 28 were singles. Cardinals went from first to third on seven different one-base hits. "If you don't watch out," warned Atlanta Second Baseman Glenn Hubbard, "they will run you out of town." St. Louis also had five sacrifice bunts in the series and three sacrifice flies in a single game. Its underrated pitchers held the Braves to a league playoff record low average of .169 and limited sluggers Chris Chambliss, Bob Horner and Dale Murphy to a total of four singles and no RBIs.
Whatever false hopes the Braves may have entertained vanished Sunday night. The Cardinals had won the first two games 7-0 and 4-3 on the artificial turf of their own Busch Memorial Stadium. Now the Braves were back home on natural grass, and Rick Camp, a sinkerball specialist suited to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, was pitching. But Camp lasted the first inning plus five batters in the second. The best player on the field, Keith Hernandez, led off the Cardinals' second with a sharp single to left. Darrell Porter walked—the eighth of 10 times the playoff MVP reached base in the series—and George Hendrick singled home Hernandez, Porter advancing to third. Willie McGee tripled in both runners, and Ozzie Smith made it 4-0 with another single. Catch them if you can. Atlanta couldn't. McGee later hit the only homer of the series and Joaquin Andujar won for the eighth consecutive time, 6-2. Bruce Sutter got the save, retiring the last seven Braves in a row. In his only other appearance, the night before, he had won Game 2 with six straight outs.
The Atlanta rotation consisted of little more than Phil Niekro, the estimable 43-year-old knuckleballer. Celebrating the previous week's West Division title, No. 2 man Camp had strained his lower back while roughhousing with Murphy. "If Dale gets hurt, they release me the next day," said Camp. "If I get hurt, they can throw somebody else." That Camp recovered in time to supersede Tommy Boggs (2-2) in the rotation was a problematic gain; that Murphy, the team mainstay, had just 15 hits, one homer and four RBIs over his last 79 at bats in 1982 was a major loss. "He tried to take on too much responsibility and pressed," said Torre. But late Sunday, as the Braves celebrated the season instead of mourning the lost playoffs, Jerry Royster, their most eloquent spokesman, put things into perspective. "We came too far to be disappointed," he said.
In the beginning of the series there were three opponents: the Cardinals, the Braves and the Weather. Two rainouts in the first three days made the early score Weather 2, Teams 1. The opener in St. Louis was washed out with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Braves leading 1-0, and Niekro on the mound. Exeunt a likely Atlanta win and, as a Game 1 starter, Niekro.
Before the teams tried again the next night, Torre spake like a prophet. "The key to beating them," he said, "is to keep Lonnie Smith off the bases; the key to beating us is to contain our power."
Whereupon Lonnie Smith ignited a five-run sixth inning and Bob Forsch allowed just three singles as the Cardinals won opener-No. 1A 7-0. Forsch, who on May 13 had failed to hold a 4-0 lead over the Braves, threw a tidy 104 pitches and faced only 30 hitters in what Porter described as "a night off for me." Once a flamethrower, Forsch, at 32, has replaced his fading fastball with guile. "He moved the ball around, changed speeds and threw outside breaking balls against righthanders," said Torre. Even so, Forsch walked no one and had just two three-ball counts. "With our big lead, it would have been a cardinal sin to walk somebody," he said, intending no pun.
The Cardinals scored their first run, in the third inning, despite a grievous base-running error. McGee tripled to the rightfield corner and should have scored when Claudell Washington slipped while attempting to pick up the ball. As McGee streaked toward third, he failed to see the "go" sign from Third Base Coach Chuck Hiller. "You're supposed to pick it up after rounding second," said McGee. "Being a rookie, you're supposed to make those mistakes; maybe I'll be able to handle it in five years." Other Cardinals weren't so philosophical. "He could have gotten five bases on that," said Manager Whitey Herzog. "Instead he only got three." Herzog laughed. "That's why he's so exciting."
The next batter was Ozzie Smith, who shares his house with McGee. "My roomie was taking care of me," Smith thought. "He wants to give me the RBI." Smith fouled off four two-strike pitches from Atlanta starter Pascual Perez and then hit a sacrifice fly to center, reprieving McGee.
The sixth inning was vintage Whitey Ball, minus the steals. Lonnie Smith led off by making the most of a weak check-swing grounder to the right of First Baseman Chambliss. "I'd been swinging at bad pitches all night," Smith said, "but Whitey told me, 'Run as hard as you can.' I knew I had a chance because Chambliss doesn't run for the base very often and Perez got a late start." Racing Perez to first, Smith rattled both Chambliss (who threw too hard, said Perez) and Perez (who took his eye off the ball, said Chambliss). Perez dropped the throw and Smith reached on what was ruled an infield hit.
The next batter, Hernandez, lined a single up the middle, sending Smith to third. "If I can reach second before the outfielder gets the ball, I'll go, no matter where it's hit," said Smith. Hendrick's single scored Smith and KO'd Perez. In came Steve Bedrosian, a rookie whose fastball moves in rapid but unmysterious ways. He was so pumped up that his pitches didn't drop or swerve. They came—and went—on a straight line. After Porter walked, McGee and Ozzie Smith singled home a run apiece, and Forsch drove in another with a sacrifice fly to give St. Louis a 5-0 lead. Ken Oberkfell made it 6-0 with another roller to Chambliss, reaching this time when Bedrosian failed to cover first. The Cardinals ended the scoring on Lonnie Smith's bases-loaded sac fly in the eighth.
St. Louis tied or broke league championship series records with 11 singles and a five-run inning; every Cardinal hit safely, including Forsch, a .206 lifetime batter who had two singles and a sacrifice fly. In addition to their slipshod fielding, the Braves lost what would have been a sure run in the third, when Perez failed to sacrifice, and a possible run in the sixth, when the stealing Washington beat the throw to second only to be tagged out as his slide stopped short of the bag.
Fortunately for Atlanta, another rainstorm postponed Friday's action. With the second game dropped back to Saturday, the indispensable Niekro could start and be available for a possible fifth game on Tuesday. Was this a reincarnation of the 1948 Boston Braves, whose rotation was described by the refrain "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain"? Bedrosian offered an updated version, "Phil, rain and pray for Niekro."
But even Niekro wasn't enough. Saturday night's 4-3 defeat was twice as devastating for the Braves as the opening loss, if only because it was twice as winnable. Consider the denouement. Last of the ninth, one out, score tied 3-3 and Cardinal rookie David Green on second. Green had singled and been sacrificed to second by Tom Herr. Atlanta's money play seemed to be to set up a force by walking Oberkfell and forcing Herzog to pinch-hit lefty Dane Iorg for Sutter. Oberkfell hit .360 in September and had a .600 lifetime average against Atlanta Relief Pitcher Gene Garber, and Sutter had pitched two splendid innings. Nevertheless, Torre decided to pitch to Oberkfell, instead of taking a chance with Iorg and Hernandez, who would follow Iorg to the plate. "I was between a rock and a hard place," said Torre.
Garber threw a slider and Oberkfell pulled it foul. "We figured he'd be looking for one over the outside, so we tried a fastball down and in," said Atlanta Catcher Bruce Benedict. Unfortunately, it arrived up and in, and Oberkfell crushed a liner to right center.
Torre had inserted Brett Butler in center an inning earlier and moved Murphy to left. Butler is 5'10" to Murphy's 6'5", but he can run faster. He raced to his left and reached up; he had the speed but not the reach. The ball cleared his glove by inches and rolled to the wall. To Hiller's consternation Green jumped straight up in the air before dancing home. Horns sounded in downtown St. Louis, and the Busch Stadium P.A. announcer said, "The Cardinals thank you, and we'll see you again soon." But Benedict, upbeat till the end, met Garber at the mound and said, "Hey, I thought he hit a really good pitch."
"I'm not sorry for [my decision]," Torre said later. "Gene's the best pitcher on my staff at pitching with a base open. He just gave him too good a pitch to hit."
It was a game that would have left other losers rehashing every move. With Niekro struggling on two days' rest, the Cards got a run in the first on a walk, a fielder's choice, a base hit and a liner Shortstop Rafael Ramirez should have turned into an inning-ending double play but dropped. Then Niekro threw a wild pitch and Oberkfell scored.
But it could easily have been Knucksie's night. The Braves had built a 3-2 lead by the time he left in the seventh, thanks in part to his own sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly. Thanks, too, to McGee in center, who let Ramirez' RBI single go through him for a run-scoring three-base error. That's what makes him exciting. And thanks to Porter who cost his team a big sixth inning when, after doubling home Hernandez with no one out, he foolishly tried for third and was cut down. St. Louis drew even in the eighth when Porter walked, Hendrick singled him to third and McGee, hanging tough with two strikes, poked a high bouncer over Garber's head, forcing Hendrick but allowing Porter to score. That, too, is what makes Willie exciting.
You could have picked several "turning points" in the game. One of them seemed to symbolize the series: Top of the eighth, Braves on first and second, nobody out. Sutter, the Cardinals' indispensable man, comes in. Murphy, the Braves' MVP candidate, tries to steal third and is thrown out. Sutter gets out of the inning, and the Cardinals score for him in the eighth and ninth.
Dapper in red cowboy hat and jacket and with his regal cane, August Busch, the 83-year-old Cardinal owner, paraded through the locker room. "God bless you, never been happier," he said to Herzog. And to the team: "Thanks a million." The next day in Atlanta, they said, "You're welcome."