The final round Battle-weary Braves, Dodgers set for last stand


Cease-fire day on the National League West battlefield.

Time to shelve the numbers, keep the bats packed. The scoreboards were silent yesterday, the TVs dark. Time to check the scars on all the faces of the Dodgers and Braves, as they inhale one last time.

Baseball has not seen such a pennant race in 13 years. Not since the Yankees and Red Sox carried it one game beyond the limit, and Mike Torrez threw a ball and Bucky Dent hit it, and both men were redefined forever.

The Dodgers and Braves have been just as unrelenting. Since Aug. 6, the Dodgers have won 32 and lost 21. Their fallen pitcher, Orel Hershiser, has stood again. Their rich new star, Darryl Strawberry, has been Reggie Jackson. Their last-minute reliever, Roger McDowell, has gotten almost every out required.

The Dodgers have kept everyone's faith. But they have not lost the Braves. Today they are tied, with three games left, Dodgers games in the gloom of Candlestick Park, Braves games in the new, disbelieving noise of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, sold out for the weekend.

Next week the runners-up will be forgotten spectators. No more games to play. A broken routine, and something far more fearsome than pain -- emptiness.

Now is the time to check the game faces, to snap them in black-and-white, in sharp relief.

* Mike Morgan, clear-eyed and brooding, a 222-pound king of the Dodger Versa-Climber. Scarred from his first major-league start, a week after he graduated from high school, Morgan has never had a major-league season before this. He has been The Player To Be Named later twice; he was left unprotected when the Yankees plotted their 40-man roster in 1982. Today he is the Dodgers' best pitcher. He has not lost since Aug. 29.

* Greg Olson, crew-cut and weary, a catcher who sweated seven years in the airless closets of Lynchburg and Jackson and Norfolk. He was in the Mets' system all that time, yet Gary Carter barely knew him. Olson joined the Braves last year and magically landed on the All-Star team. Unimpressed, the Braves bought free-agent catcher Mike Heath in the offseason. Angered, Olson began this year 15-for-30 with Braves in scoring position. In September, he caught all but one inning, at the desperate request of the young Atlanta pitchers. "You don't get hurt in a pennant race," he says numbly.

* Mike Sharperson, businesslike and religious, sobered by years of neglect in the Toronto organization. Three times, he was the MVP of his minor-league club. He watched Tony Fernandez and Manny Lee and Nelson Liriano whiz past him, in the car-pool lane, to the big club. For four years he has scratched for playing time with the Dodgers. "All our scouts said that the more you see Sharpie, the better you like him," Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said. Sharperson has pelted September with big hits, including Sunday's broken-barrel single that set the winning stage for Strawberry.

* Deion Sanders, sassy and bejeweled, asking out of the NFL for the two weeks it would take to win it for the Braves. Just before David Justice's epic homer off Cincinnati's Rob Dibble on Tuesday, Sanders stole second and the Braves' dugout rioted happily. The Braves like Deion. He always hits the cutoff man, and he hits fastballs. In his last pre-Falcon game, he homered to help beat Pittsburgh, and took a curtain call. Tuesday, he bear-hugged his teammates when the great comeback was complete. For a rundown team, Sanders is a B-12 shot.

* Darryl Strawberry, 29 and sure-footed. You scoffed at his newfound faith, and you snickered when he was marooned in slumps and injury. "Did he forget how to hit?" Tom Lasorda finally sputtered. But Strawberry had the big homer when the Mets won Game 7 in 1986, and he is nightly news these days. He also hits lefthanders. "I'd rather face them now," he says. "I stay back and concentrate on my fundamentals better." For Strawberry to stand on the brink of 100 RBIs is incredible. No National Leaguer has been more valuable.

Both clubs have taken hits. Otis Nixon went down with drugs. The Dodgers were no-hit for nine innings on July 26 and won, absorbed a perfect game two days later.

There are two aspects of sports that cannot be duplicated: a championship prize fight, and a pennant race. A pennant race is more precious because the blood is subdural, and the drama more diffuse. The Dodgers and Braves begin the 15th round tonight, three time zones apart. They would fight the 16th face-to-face, Monday night in L.A. Beyond that there are no promises.

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