PITTSBURGH -- When he came off the field unable to continue pitching a week ago, Doug Drabek could not be sure he would get on the mound again for the Pittsburgh Pirates this year. A strained left hamstring kept him out of the rotation in Atlanta, where the Pirates very well could have left their season.
They came back, however, both in the National League Championship Series and to Pittsburgh, giving Drabek a chance to finish what he started. Drabek pitched six shutout innings in the Pirates' 5-1 victory over the Braves in Game 1 last Wednesday night. The Pirates would be delighted with a continuance of that sort of work in Game 6 tonight (8:30, Ch. 11) because one victory is all they need to get to the World Series for the first time in 12 years. Pittsburgh leads the NLCS three games to two after taking two of three from the Braves in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Drabek is scheduled to start against Steve Avery, but a word of caution is in order. Pirates manager Jim Leyland said there was a "95 percent" chance Drabek would start. This is the manager who a year ago sent Zane Smith as the Game 6 starter against the Cincinnati Reds to a news conference the day before the game after he had decided to start Ted Power.
There were no workouts yesterday at Three Rivers Stadium, where the field configuration was being switched from football to baseball after Monday night's Giants-Steelers game, so if Leyland planned any changes he wasn't around to answer questions. He was busy at home with a 4-day-old son.
The questionable 5 percent in Drabek's probability of starting may be the weather. Temperatures are expected to drop into the 40s tonight, and there is a chance of rain. There was a steady drizzle all day yesterday.
"With that kind of forecast, the thing I'm going to have to do is make sure we wrap it well and really stretch it out," Drabek said. "Maybe we'll do a little more to make sure it's loose before I go out and start warming up."
Drabek spoke as if he fully intends to fulfill his assignment. Leyland has lefthander John Smiley, the losing pitcher in Game 3 in which he lasted only two innings, listed as the starter for Game 7, if necessary, but could change his mind and switch if Drabek doesn't appear sound at gametime.
"It's not his pitching I'm worried about," Leyland said Monday. "It's his mobility that concerns me."
That concerns Drabek as well. The righthander threw off the mound in the bullpen before the Pirates' 1-0 victory in Game 5 and reported no discomfort, but he had yet to give his reflexes a severe test.
"Throwing off flat ground [Sunday] went well, and I felt even better off the mound," Drabek said. "I just have to wait and see about making any quick movements. I haven't really tried that out yet. The reason is we don't want to take any more chances than we really have to."
And chances are that if Drabek plays and gets a hit, he won't try stretching for an extra base unless a trot can accomplish it. The injury occurred in the sixth inning of Game 1 when the pitcher tried to turn an RBI double into a triple. He was thrown out sliding into third after his hamstring gave way. His hit gave the Pirates a 4-0 lead.
Several teammates, notably Andy Van Slyke, felt Drabek's hustle was not necessary considering the score. "I told him he was a dummy," Van Slyke said teasingly, "but he only knows one way to play. Hard."
"Andy always calls me a dummy, so I'm used to it," Drabek said. "It was something that probably wasn't the right move, but I'm not going to wear myself down mentally about it. If I was thrown out at third and didn't get hurt, no one would say too much about it. The injury magnified what I did. I just have to concentrate on getting it better for my next start."
Drabek recalled experiencing a similar injury in 1987, his first year with the Pirates, whom he joined from the Yankees in a six-pitcher trade along with Brian Fisher and Logan Easley for Rick Rhoden, Cecilio Guante and Pat Clements. Drabek is the only one still pitching in the majors and has a 77-51 record plus the 1990 National League Cy Young Award since leaving the Bronx.
"It was a lot worse that year," he said. "I pulled it and was out for three or four weeks. In my first game, I just tried to stay within myself. My arm strength was there. My control wasn't, but remember, I'd been out a month. You don't want to go out there and do something that's going to hurt it again. At the same time, you can't go out there and favor it because you might hurt something else or you might not be effective."