Braves-Pirates series is the most entertaining bit of nothing around


PITTSBURGH -- Welcome to Ground Zero.

Welcome to a world of clean (home) plates and twisted stomachs, of sleepy third-base coaches and broken bats.

Of pitching mounds that tower like Kilimanjaro. Of fences that stretch beyond the naked eye. Of pitchers who pitch the games of their lives, like Pittsburgh's Doug Drabek did yesterday in Game 6, and still lose. Of pitchers who have their whole professional lives before them, like Atlanta's Steve Avery, and pitch as if Cooperstown is waiting.

Welcome to the most entertaining bunch of nothing you've ever seen. We go to further inaction tonight in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series between Atlanta and Pittsburgh, all tied up 3-3, playing on a diamond that looks like forever.

They have played 28 innings the past three games. That's 56 times at-bat. They have scored in six of those times. Not since Atlanta's bottom of the first, in Game 4, has more than one man come across the plate, to be hugged by relatives and paraded down Main Street.

The on-deck circle looks like Death Row. Past performance is written on a hot dog wrapper. Terry Pendleton, Atlanta's MVP candidate, is 1-for-his-last-11. Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, Pittsburgh's postseason nominees, have a total of three hits since Saturday.

In the last three games there have been seven extra-base hits. Pittsburgh's side has gone down in order 10 times in the past 18 innings. If you think that's boring, you don't know baseball. Bunts are more exciting than punts. Nothing -- at least not since last year's National League Championship Series -- compares to this.

"My pulse rate has gone off the charts," Pirates outfielder Andy Van Slyke said, a few minutes after Alejandro Pena struck him out with two down in the ninth and Gary Varsho standing on third in the Braves' 1-0 win.

"The last three games have the most one-of-a-kind, nerve-racking, disappointing games I've ever been in," Van Slyke continued. "We're in good shape, they're in good shape. I don't even feel bad about my last at-bat. I had a good at-bat."

It was almost a Carlton Fisk, Bill Mazeroski, Chris Chambliss type of last at-bat. Van Slyke scorched a two-strike foul the required distance to win it for Pittsburgh, but the ball curved out of bounds, off a blue wall in rightfield. He hit two other deafening fouls, broke a bat, looked at the coaches, and finally watched Pena's changeup clip the outside corner.

"I didn't think anything could be more classic than last year's playoff," said Jay Bell, referring to Cincinnati's six-game victory over the Pirates. "But this is even more classic, if you can believe it.

"And you sure don't expect a kid like Avery to pitch like he did in Game 2 here -- and then to do it again. But he was every bit as good as he was then, maybe even better. He's as good as any lefthander in the league right now."

That's assuming any lefthander can be admitted into his league. Avery pitches any better than this in the World Series, Michael Jordan has to give up a Wheaties box.

The Pirates, who struck out fewer times than any NL team this year, did so five times in the first two innings. Call him Air Avery. Only Bonds drove an outfielder backward, with a drive to leftfield in the eighth. Only Don Slaught pulled a base hit, to lead off the third inning. The other two hits were Jiffy-Pop variety. No Pirate got beyond first base until the ninth, when Avery was already gone.

"You see what he's done at the stage of the career he's in," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said of the 21-year-old, "and you better say he's something special."

Ray Miller, Mazzone's Pittsburgh counterpart, couldn't object.

"I don't know, I like to think I've got a guy who's the best in baseball [Drabek]," Miller said. "And here's a kid trying to unseat him in two weeks' time.

"It's the kind of thing you're used to seeing from Koufax and Gibson. And those guys never did what this kid's done."

Avery has amused himself in this series by competing with Tommy Gregg, to see which guy can poke his head into the most pre-game TV interviews. But his real fun comes on the mound. "You've got to like pitching with millions of people watching," he has said. "I like to look around the stands when there's no one on base and take in the scenery."

He took in a lot.

"Poison Avery," Van Slyke said with a grin.

But when it came to resourcefulness and improvisation, Drabek was just as good. Atlanta was 0-for-11 with men in scoring position before Greg Olson shot a ninth-inning double into leftfield, scoring Ron Gant. Drabek was pitching with a bad groin, in 49-degree chill, with champagne at stake. "He's got more courage than any pitcher I've ever seen," said Gant, who is from Drabek's hometown of Victoria, Texas.

Two more pitchers climb the scaffold tonight. Atlanta's John Smoltz has not lost since Aug. 15. Pittsburgh's John Smiley won 20 games this year. But he lasted only two innings in Saturday's 10-3 loss in Game 3.

"I'm kind of excited," Miller said. "John got hit on the arm a couple of weeks, but now he's had plenty of time to get healthy. And he always pitches better with a lot of rest."

And Smoltz?

"This is my type of weather," said Smoltz, a Michigan native like Avery. "It won't guarantee me success or wins, but I enjoy going to the mound when it's like this."

The forecast? It should be clear, especially around the plate, and just above zero.

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