Braves are down, but don't count them out


MINNEAPOLIS -- It's a mistake to assume the underdog Atlanta Braves have the Minnesota Twins right where they want them. Last night Ron Gant thought his foot was in the perfect spot, but Frank Robinson's old friend, Drew Coble, forgot which sport he was officiating.

The Metrodome is the ultimate no-holds-barred arena, so it was the perfect site for the World Series to turn into the World Wrestling Federation. Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek unleashed a piledriver on Gant to kill a third-inning rally, and now the Braves trail this battle royal, two games to none.

Gant was called out by first-base umpire Coble even though Hrbek wrapped both arms around his right leg and used his 81-pound weight advantage to lift him off the bag. It was but one of several turning points in a 3-2 classic that carried a subtle but important disclaimer:

Don't count the Braves out.

The Twins still haven't lost a World Series game in their cherished steel cage, which offers perhaps the greatest homefield advantage in sports. But this Series is following the same pattern as 1987, when Minnesota won the first and last two games at home, dropping the three in St. Louis in between.

The difference was, the Cardinals got beat 10-1 and 8-4 to start the '87 Series, while the Braves lost here by only 5-2 and 3-2. A three-run homer by No. 9 hitter Greg Gagne gave the Twins their margin of victory in Game 1. An eighth-inning solo shot by No. 8 hitter Scott Leius provided it last night.

The Braves? They managed only one RBI hit these first two games, scoring their three other runs on an error and two sacrifice flies. Yet for all their troubles, they return to Atlanta with their two hottest pitchers, Steve Avery and John Smoltz, starting the next two games.

Game 1 loser Charlie Leibrandt is still scheduled to work Game 5, but the Braves could switch and pitch Tom Glavine on three DTC days rest, then do the same with Avery and Smoltz. Glavine has now worked nearly 270 innings, but he uncorked a dazzling four-hitter last night. Alas, two of the hits were home runs.

No doubt the Braves face an immensely difficult task, for even if they sweep the next three, they still would have to win in the Dome. But they trailed Los Angeles by 9 1/2 games in July, then three games to two when the National League Championship Series returned to Pittsburgh. Don't you dare count them out.

After last night's game, Braves manager Bobby Cox said, "If they're going to beat us, they're going to have to do it here." Cox quickly added, "but I don't guarantee anything," just for etiquette's sake. Well-mannered or not, his players understand.

"We've had our backs against the wall," second baseman Mark Lemke said. "It's going to be a tough grind, but we've done it all year long. We're used to this stuff. We're used to coming from behind. Hopefully, this will be no different. Hopefully, we'll bounce right back."

Returning to Atlanta should help, but in truth the Metrodome was not much of a factor, aside from the Dan Gladden pop-up that Lemke and rightfielder Dave Justice flubbed in the first inning last night. "We didn't come in and get blown out," Glavine said. "We weren't in awe of this place."

Lemke said Justice's error was caused in equal parts by the blinding Teflon roof and the rising crowd noise. Whatever, both Twins runs that inning were earned. The Dome wasn't to blame when Glavine walked Chuck Knoblauch and allowed Chili Davis' two-out homer to left.

Likewise, the Dome didn't force Sid Bream to remain stuck on second when he should have tagged on Brian Hunter's second-inning sacrifice fly. Nor did it account for Gant and Justice making back-to-back outs to end a first-and-third threat in the eighth.

The Braves just lost, OK? Same as in Game 1. Gant and Justice barely missed home runs early in the Series opener, and two potential big innings -- the sixth and eighth -- resulted in only two runs. Last night the Braves got even fewer breaks -- and still almost won.

The sinister third-inning ploy by the 253-pound Hrbek was a microcosm of the Series from Atlanta's perspective. Granted, there were two outs at the time, but Gant's single had just advanced Lonnie Smith to third. Justice was scheduled to bat next. Who knows what might have happened?

It turns out Hrbek is a wrestling fan partial to Ric Flair and Baron von Raschke. He even has a wrestling nickname: "T-Rex." But Coble blamed the play on Gant, who threw his helmet in disgust but was not ejected. Coble's post-game remarks mentioned something about Gant's lunging back into the bag. A fine Congressional witness he'd make.

Gant moaned, "It was so obvious," but neither he nor first-base coach Pat Corrales blamed Hrbek for pulling the stunt. In truth, all it did was help put the Braves on the ropes. They've been there before, and they've always bounced back, right to the center of the ring.

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