ATLANTA -- At times they played like the last-place teams they were as recently as a year ago. But after 12 tantalizing innings here last night, the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins had produced a classic worthy of the World Series.
There was even a degree of justice (not David, though he was key factor) in the outcome -- because this was too good a game to produce an 0-3 deficit for the loser.
That was the prospect facing the Braves before they finally solved the Twins' bullpen to push across the deciding run early this morning for a pulsating 5-4 victory in the first World Series game ever played in Atlanta.
Mark Lemke, who only moments before had made what coulhave been a fatal error, delivered the hit -- a line drive over the head of shortstop Greg Gagne off Rick Aguilera. And it was David Justice, the near-goat of the National League Championship Series, who scored the winning run with a creative slide that barely enabled him to avoid the tag by Minnesota catcher Brian Harper.
This was a game that saw the Braves get a lead for the first timin the World Series, then lose it to a stunning pinch-hit home run by Minnesota's Chili Davis. It was a game that saw the usually-opportunistic Twins fail to capitalize on late-inning scoring opportunities.
It was a game that saw each team's stopper fail in the latinnings. It was a game, played under National League rules without the designated hitter, that saw pitcher Aguilera enter the game as a pinch-hitter.
It produced records for players used (42), pinch-hitters (11), anequaled the second longest World Series game in history. Also, it was a game that saw the Braves dodge an 0-and-3 bullet and keep alive their hopes for a perfect ending to their fairy-tale season.
Even losing manager Tom Kelly, who used every player on hiroster except his starting pitchers for the next two nights (Jack Morris and Kevin Tapani), was able to put the excitement of the moment ahead of the disappointment of the loss.
"It was a terrific game," said Kelly, who made bold moves alnight in an effort to take an insurmountable lead. "We were down 4-1 against [Steve] Avery and put a scare into him. The bottom line is we had a couple of chances to get the job done and we didn't do it. I felt pretty good about the ballclub.
"I'm not glad we lost, but it was a helluva game."
When Lemke booted Chuck Knoblauch's room servicdouble-play grounder in the top of the 12th inning, he was lower than the basement of Fulton County Stadium. "But I looked at a couple of the guys in the infield and they all said, 'Hey, let's go -- you're not done and we're not done,' " he said. "It's unfortunate those things have to happen and I really felt bad about it, but I knew it wasn't the end of the world."
Lemke was bailed out by lefty reliever Kent Mercker, who goKent Hrbek looking at a third strike, and righthander Jim Clancy, who got Aguilera, batting for Mark Guthrie, to fly out to centerfield.
When the Braves came off the field, catcher Greg Olson said tLemke: "Come on, let's go -- you're going to get the game-winning hit right here."
Lemke heard the words of encouragement, but only because hcouldn't avoid them. "I tried not to listen," he said. "When I got up there I didn't want to force myself to try and win the game. I just wanted to make hard contact, put the ball in play."
He got his chance because Justice got a one-out single anstole second while Olson was working Aguilera for a tough walk with two outs, putting the game in Lemke's hands.
He delivered a sharp single that Dan Gladden fielded on onbounce in short leftfield. It then became a race between Justice and the ball to home plate.
"I had confidence Mark was going to get a hit," said Justice"He's done it all year. I just wanted to get as good a jump as possible -- make sure I touched third base -- and run as fast as I could."
Gladden's throw was off line by the slimmest of margins, jusenough to give Justice an angle to home plate. "I knew it was going to be close by looking at the catcher," he said. "I saw him move to his left and that gave me the opening I needed."
Justice, whose fourth-inning homer had given the Braves a 2-lead, slid hard to the inside, touching home plate with his right hand as he went by -- and barely avoiding Harper's tag.
In Game 5 of the NLCS, Justice had been called out for missinthird base on a similar play. He also had a costly throwing error in the same game that put the Braves in the position of having to win the last two games in Pittsburgh to advance to the World Series.
He was asked if he felt his play last night served as redemptiofor his playoff misfortune. "No," he said emphatically. "All of you .. know I touched third base; you've got to print that I touched third base.
"Besides," added Justice, "none of that matters. We're in thWorld Series. If we had not gotten into the World Series, you guys would've hounded me and I probably would've had to live with it the rest of my career.
"But we're in the World Series now, so I don't have to make ufor anything."
Neither do his teammates. They know that, win or lose, whathey accomplished this year cannot be tainted. Even if they had been swept by the Twins, they would have carried a charismatic charm with them into the offseason.
There is nothing left to prove -- although the Braves aren't buyinthat theory.
"It might actually have been better for us to have to go into extra innings to win this game," said Lemke. "It definitely gives us some momentum."
It also gives the Twins something to think about. They have tface John Smoltz, the only righthander in the Braves' rotation, tonight and their bullpen is in disarray.
The Twins' gamble on having only nine pitchers eligible fopostseason play could be in for its severest test tonight. If Jack Morris can't go seven strong innings, which is his norm, then this "worst to first" World Series matchup is going to get even more interesting.
But no more interesting than last night's game, when the AtlantBraves came off the floor to make a very strong statement.