For the Atlanta Braves, the season had come down to one game,
played Monday night in San Diego. The Braves were machines
during the regular season, relentlessly grinding out 106
victories. They swept the Chicago Cubs in the Division Series so
efficiently that it's hard now to remember a single highlight.
But all that would mean nothing if Atlanta could not defeat the
Padres in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.
After almost miraculously sweeping the first three games of the
series, San Diego was one victory from the World Series. The
Braves had spent all their losses.
The only thing Atlanta could do was win. That's the curse of the
Braves. Because of their talent, because of their payroll,
because of their won-lost record in the 1990s--the best in
baseball--they must win. For the Braves, and only the Braves, the
standard categories are not Wins and Losses, but Wins and
Failures. That's why they so often look uptight. But on Monday
night, down three games to one, they stole a page from the Padres
playbook. They took chances, made odd moves, never looked grim,
even when they were losing. Role reversal.
Atlanta and San Diego played an epic three hours and 17 minutes
of mesmerizing baseball. The Braves won 7-6, with Greg Maddux,
closer for a day, getting the save. Kevin Brown, middle reliever
for a day, took the loss. That's how the game went. The Braves
showed their greatness in the most unlikely way: In their most
important game of the year, they somehow found a way to play as
if they had nothing to lose.
When things looked their bleakest for Atlanta, with the Padres
leading 4-2 in the eighth inning and ace starter Brown, who had
been waved in from the bullpen in the seventh, methodically
mowing down the Braves, rightfielder Michael Tucker saved the
day with a dramatic homer, a three-run jack on a full count that
left Tony Gwynn abjectly slumped against the rightfield wall and
Brown clutching his head in horror as Tucker joyfully rounded
October 18, 1998
After Tucker's home run, more weirdness ensued. Donne Wall came
in to pitch for the Padres, and the first batter he faced was
Braves reliever John Rocker. Wall walked him. Ouch. Following a
strikeout of Ozzie Guillen, utility infielder Tony Graffanino
smacked a double deep into the left center gap and advanced to
third on the throw from centerfielder Steve Finley. Rocker, who
bats about twice a year, sprinted around the bases looking for
all the world like Forrest Gump in his running phase and crossed
with run number 6. On his attempt to nail Rocker at home,
shortstop Chris Gomez took the cutoff and threw a short hopper
in front of the plate. The ball rolled out of play as Rocker
upended catcher Carlos Hernandez, and the umpires sent
Graffanino home. The Padres had their first error of the series,
and the Braves had a 7-4 lead.
For good and for bad, Bobby Cox, the Braves' manager, sets the
tone for Atlanta. After the game somebody asked him how he had
reacted to Tucker's homer. His answer was telling: "I didn't
have any reaction." On this night he was alone in his stoicism.
All around him, everybody else on the Braves was going nuts.
Atlanta is like some immense corporation that has trouble
changing speeds quickly. It's a team without music--no tunes in
the clubhouse, by order of the manager--and without moods.
Steadiness is next to godliness over the course of a 162-game
season but of lesser value in the postseason, when emotion can
make you. A generation raised on basketball sometimes forgets a
salient fact about baseball: The better team doesn't always win.
Not once in the 1990s has the team with the best regular-season
record gone on to win the World Series. From April through
September superior players will produce superior numbers, and
the victories will flow. The Braves know this well. Yes, they
won those 106 games in the regular season, but October is
carried by intangibles. That's something the Braves, for all
their front-office intelligence and on-field skill, don't always
seem to fully grasp, not this year, not in years past.
The Padres are more artistic, like your neighborhood barber.
He's mad at his wife, your hair suffers. The next time, the
radio is playing his favorite opera, and your hair has never
looked better. Music is played constantly in the San Diego
clubhouse (rappin' Will Smith, not Puccini). The volume is
deafening when the Padres are going well, at a whisper when
they're not. Music fills the players, and it shows. In Games 1,
2 and 3, San Diego faced John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Maddux.
The Padres stepped in to face perhaps the best pitching rotation
ever, with their ears ringing and stomachs tingling, and
proceeded to do something not just unlikely, but almost
unimaginable: They won three times.
Game 1, on Oct. 7 in Atlanta, began two hours late because of
rain. Scalpers were selling $45 seats for $20, and there were
thousands of empty seats at Turner Field. Because of the delay
the teams were never introduced in the ritualistic postseason
way, and Cox later said the lack of pomp took away something
from the atmosphere. The rain turned the foam tomahawks,
giveaways to the Atlanta fans, into limp red sponges. When the
soggy spectators went into their ancient war chant, it sounded
prerecorded. As for the Braves themselves, they seemed tired,
like the rain-soaked bunting in the stadium.
On talent alone Atlanta made it a game. Smoltz pitched as Smoltz
does, but San Diego starter Andy Ashby pitched like Smoltz,
too--better, even. Smoltz gave up two runs in seven innings;
Ashby also lasted seven but allowed just one. At the end of nine
the score was 2-2. Extra innings, and the stands were maybe one
third filled when the Padres came to bat in the top of the 10th
at well past one in the morning. Among the San Diego players
there was not a hint of sluggishness, as if their watercooler
had been filled with Starbucks high-test.
With one out the Padres' Ken Caminiti came to the plate to face
Braves reliever Kerry Ligtenberg. Caminiti, crazily intense,
with piercing eyes that constantly dart every which way, was
still kicking himself for "acting like such a jerk" after San
Diego had demolished the Houston Astros in the Division Series.
Caminiti had played poorly against Houston and had moped around
afterward when he should have been, he subsequently realized,
celebrating. When Ligtenberg fell behind him, three balls and a
strike, Caminiti smelled fastball and the opportunity to redeem
himself. Bam! A 413-foot shot over the centerfield wall. The
Padres finished the Braves off in the bottom of the 10th, and
the opening victory was in the bank, 3-2. Later Caminiti was
asked if, despite the moribund atmosphere, the game had felt
like a playoff opener. His answer was simple and direct: "Hell,
In Game 2, San Diego had Brown, its best and most emotional
pitcher, on the mound. The Padres were on the railing of their
dugout from the first pitch. On the other side the
Braves--reserved by nature and perhaps because of their vast
experience--sat on their hands to keep them warm on a chilly
Brown was a one-man wrecking crew. He pitched the entire game,
allowed no runs and only three hits, struck out 11, fielded his
position flawlessly, went 2 for 4, scored one run and set up
another, and ran the diamond like a wild man. (He ended the
sixth inning with a headfirst slide into third, trying to take
two bases on a single, and finished the game with a dirt-covered
uniform.) After the game people were comparing him to the stud
Little League pitcher who bats fourth, plays short when he's not
on the mound, tells all the other kids what to do during the
game and deflects praise while wolfing down pizza afterward.
The Braves, for all their strengths, have nobody like Brown, an
intense, combative perfectionist who beat Atlanta twice in last
year's National League Championship Series while a member of the
Florida Marlins. San Diego is the fourth team Brown has played
for, and he's never won popularity contests at any of his stops.
But as he helped extend the Padres' season, he was making new
friends. "Brown's a good guy, after the game is over, when
everything mellows out," says San Diego slugger Greg Vaughn, who
suffered a strained left quadriceps in Game 1 that limited him
to one at bat in the next four games. Before everything mellows
out, bathroom fixtures in Brown's way are in jeopardy.
Teammates, able to clear a path, do so. But all was well after
he essentially won Game 2 for the Padres by himself, 3-0.
As the teams moved to San Diego last Saturday for Game 3, the
Braves, true to form, were not panicking. The pitching matchup
pitted Maddux (202-117 lifetime with a 2.75 ERA) against
Sterling Hitchcock (48-42 lifetime with a 5.07 ERA). You're Cox,
and you're filling out your lineup card, and you're down two
games to none, and you're on the road, and you have to admit it:
You still like your chances. After all, Maddux is the best
pitcher of his era and probably several others, and in the six
seasons that he, Smoltz and Glavine have been in the same
rotation, they have lost three games in a row only five times.
Said Hitchcock, "There's no pressure on me. I'm not expected to
But he did, by taking a page out of Brown's book. Trailing 1-0
in the bottom of the fifth, Hitchcock, a lifetime .120 hitter,
began a rally with a one-out single, a dribbling grounder
through the infield. The next batter, Quilvio Veras, hit a weak
bouncer to the mound. Maddux went for the sure out at first, and
now Hitchcock stood at second with two down. Up came Finley, San
Diego's superb defensive centerfielder. He smacked a double into
territory he knows well, the left center gap, and Hitchcock came
puffing home. The score was tied, and coming to the plate was
Gwynn, the best hitter of his era and probably several others.
Gwynn had had an off year and a mediocre postseason to that
point, but he owns Maddux, against whom he had hit .443, so the
Braves decided to walk him and take their chances with...
Caminiti was practically frothing all over his neat goatee, so
fired up was he. His buddy and teammate Jim Leyritz had got him
going. Leyritz, the Padres' backup catcher, is one of those
players who opposing teams can't stand and teammates rally
around. In 1996 he was with the Yankees when his Game 4
three-run homer off Mark Wohlers helped New York defeat the
Braves. Last Saturday, Leyritz struck out swinging in the
first--but only after Maddux had asked for an appeal to the
first base umpire to see if Leyritz had gone around. His next
time up, in the fourth, Leyritz asked the home plate umpire to
check the ball for a scrape mark or a foreign substance. Plunk!
Maddux, the ultimate control pitcher, threw one in the vicinity
of Leyritz's head, hitting him in the shoulder.
Finally, a show of emotion by a Brave! But this one seemed to
backfire. "The only thing Maddux did," Leyritz said later, "was
fire us up." In the next inning Caminiti faced Maddux, and he was
ready. He ripped one--O.K., it was a 150-foot, up-the-middle
grounder, but it was enough to score Hitchcock and give the
Padres a 2-1 lead, which was all they needed. San Diego was up
three games to none.
At that point one could only wonder, What's with these Braves,
who seem to play their best baseball only during the regular
season? On Sunday they finally played loose, and with heart.
Down one run in the seventh, they pulled out all the stops and
came back. Every player was on his feet, screaming praise to his
teammates as more than 60,000 fans suddenly went silent. Andres
Galarraga, done with his long nap--the Big Cat had gone 1 for 11
with five strikeouts in the first three games--smoked a grand
slam that put the game out of reach as Atlanta finally got a
win, trouncing the Padres 8-3. "It's tough to play with emotion
when you're not scoring runs," Galarraga said later. But what
comes first, the emotion or the runs?
The fire having been lit under the Braves, though, it continued
to burn in Game 5. That one ended with the never-say-die Padres
sending the winning run to the plate with the best matchup San
Diego could have hoped for: Gwynn versus Maddux, with Caminiti on
deck. This time the best pitcher of this era took his chances
against the best hitter. Gwynn grounded out. The series was
headed back to Atlanta. No team in baseball history has ever won
a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games. The
Braves were looking to make a little history.
Atlanta's team buses, ready for the short trip to the airport,
were parked in the Padres' parking lot at Qualcomm Stadium. The
Braves, in their fine suits and shiny boots, strutted about with
their wives and girlfriends. They were down three games to two,
but they were up, looking like they owned the place. Several
Padres--Caminiti, Gomez and Finley--entered the scene. They were
dressed casually, and they were quiet. They looked for their
cars. For the first time all series, they looked lost.
Maddux, closer for a day, got the save. Brown, middle reliever
for a day, took the loss. That's how the game went.
If you're Bobby Cox and you're down two games to zero, on the
road, you have to admit, you still like your chances.