Avery, Olson help Braves force Game 7 Pirates fall, 1-0, on 9th-inning run


PITTSBURGH -- Postseason baseball doesn't get any better than this.

For sheer drama and tension, the World Series will have to go some extra miles to match a National League Championship Series that produced its record third 1-0 game last night and saved the Atlanta Braves from elimination.

Steve Avery and Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Doug Drabek staged a dynamic pitching duel and in the end, the more experienced Drabek cracked, yielding a run-scoring double to Greg Olson in the ninth inning that set up decisive Game 7 tonight at Three Rivers Stadium.

Through eight scoreless innings, Drabek and Avery battled mightily, the Braves' run famine stretching to an NL Championship Series-record 26 straight innings.

Then, with two out in the ninth, Olson lined his double into the left-field corner to score Ron Gant, who had walked and stolen second, setting the NL playoff record with his sixth steal of the series.

Avery was magnificent again through eight innings before being lifted for a pinch hitter. The Pirates did not get a runner into scoring position against him and had only five base-runners, three on singles and two on walks.

The left-hander, only 21, has the NL playoff record of 16 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings and two wins by 1-0.

Pirates manager Jim Leyland said he didn't think Avery "was quite as great" the second time around, "but he's got great poise and finesse."

Olson disagreed.

"I thought Steve was just as dominant [as], if not more dominant than, the last time here," he said. "Especially at the beginning of the game, when he struck out five of the first six batters."

Alejandro Pena, who had not allowed a run or hit in 3 1/3 previous innings of the NL playoffs, relieved Avery in the ninth.

Pinch hitter Gary Varsho broke the hit drought against Pena by singling to center on a sinking liner off Gant's glove and was sacrificed to second by pinch hitter Orlando Merced.

Jay Bell flied out, but a wild pitch by Pena moved Varsho to third. Pena then completed his third save of the series by striking out Andy Van Slyke with a changeup after Van Slyke had blasted two fastballs foul.

"He might have thrown about 30 pitches," said Olson of Pena. "Almost all fastballs. Then, finally, on that last pitch, we decided to throw the changeup, and we were able to sink it in."

That concluded 22 innings in which the Pirates have scored exactly one run.

Avery said he "felt about the same" as in Game 2 and that, "despite a lot of pressure in both games, we pulled it off when we had to."

Particularly him. Don Slaught singled in the third against him and was out trying to stretch the hit. Jose Lind looped a single to right in the sixth and was wiped out on a double play. Steve Buechele singled in the eighth and never advanced.

By then, Avery said, he was losing some steam on his 95-mph fastball.

"I felt I had good stuff in the first seven innings," he said. "But I started to die in the eighth. I told Bobby [Cox] I thought it would be better if Tommy Gregg pinch hit because I was losing it a little."

Gregg struck out to end the top of the ninth.

Avery was shaking on the bench by that point and said later that he didn't know if it was because he was "nervous or cold. I think it was a combination of both."

Cox said: "He's pitched all the big games for us this year. He's a sturdy, dependable pitcher. Unflappable."

Avery overshadowed another excellent performance by Drabek, who had to overcome five Braves in scoring position through eight innings.

Leyland said: "The unfortunate thing is Drabek turned in a tremendous performance and it is going to get lost in the shuffle. He pitched a great game and was coming back from an injury."

Drabek strained his left hamstring in Game 1 while trying to stretch a double into a triple and left the 5-1 victory after six innings.

The incident delayed his second start two days, but he did not suffer any ill effects. Avery was just a little better, and Pena made the big pitch to Van Slyke.

Tonight's pitching matchup appears to favor the Braves.

"We have a good matchup and another horse [John Smoltz] going for us," Cox said. "There will be no more pressure than there was tonight."

Gant said: "I think the momentum's on both sides. They're playing at home, and it's tough to beat them here. But we have a little bit ourselves with John Smoltz on the mound. We feel confident we can win."

NL playoffs

(Pirates lead, 3-2) Game 1 -- Pittsburgh 5, Atlanta 1

Game 2 -- Atlanta 1, Pittsburgh 0

Game 3 -- Atlanta 10, Pittsburgh 3

Game 4 -- Pittsburgh 3, Atlanta 2

Game 5 -- Pittsburgh 1, Atlanta 0

Yesterday -- Atlanta 1, Pittsburgh 0

Today -- Atlanta (Smoltz 14-13) at Pittsburgh (Smiley 20-8), 8:37 p.m.

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