PITTSBURGH -- With an entire city, his manager and his teammates holding their collective breath, Pittsburgh Pirates rookie pitcher Tim Wakefield calmly kept his team in the hunt for a successful October.
The 26-year-old knuckleballer, barely two years removed from a going-nowhere-fast career as a first baseman, kept the Pirates alive in the National League Championship Series, beating the Atlanta Braves, 3-2, at Three Rivers Stadium last night.
Wakefield was not only effective on the mound, but made a critical fielding play in the third, throwing out second baseman Mark Lemke, who had doubled to lead off the inning and was moving to third on Atlanta pitcher Tom Glavine's sacrifice attempt.
"I think the poise is just the confidence I have in myself," said Wakefield, the first rookie pitcher to start an NLCS game in eight years and the first Pirate to throw a complete-game victory in the playoffs in 12 years.
TH "I feel pretty confident that I threw a lot of strikes. As far as my
defense, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
Wakefield's job, simply put, was to shut down an Atlanta attack that had battered Pittsburgh pitching for 18 runs and 22 hits in two games to leave the Pirates coming home and facing a possible 3-0 deficit, which no team in National League history has ever emerged from.
And, save for two long two-out, first-pitch homers from Sid Bream and Ron Gant, Wakefield did just that.
"He didn't give in. He just kept throwing that knuckleball. He stayed with it," said Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland.
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said: "He threw well. He gave us some runs, we hit the ball well, but we hit them right at them, which hurt us."
The Pirates still trail the best of seven series, 2-1, but the win assures that Pittsburgh will avoid the ignominy of being the first National League team to be swept in a seven-game playoff series.
Wakefield, who threw 109 pitches, 77 of them strikes, was mostly in command, giving up five hits, striking out three and walking one.
Bream's two-out homer to center in the fourth marked the third consecutive year he had gone deep in the NLCS, and Gant, who connected with two out in the seventh, homered for the second straight game, following Wednesday's grand slam.
But the story, besides Wakefield, was the redemption of the heart of the Pirates' order, which had continued its traditional October slump in the first two games of the series. The middle of the lineup snapped out of it at the expense of Glavine, who lost his first 1992 decision to Pittsburgh in five starts, and dropped his fourth game in his past five overall starts.
"The only disappointment I had in Atlanta was we didn't play the way the Pittsburgh Pirates are capable of playing," said Leyland. "The past two playoffs, we played well, but we got beat. Down in Atlanta, we didn't play the way we're capable of."
The Pirates left a runner at third in the first with no one out, and stranded another runner in the third with one out.
But, given a second chance by catcher Don Slaught's fifth-inning, bases-empty homer, Andy Van Slyke, Barry Bonds, Jay Bell and Jeff King, who collectively produced just four hits in 30 at-bats in the first two games, finally produced runs that mattered.
In the sixth, Van Slyke led off the inning with a double to right and moved to third on Bonds' fly to center. King then doubled in Van Slyke with a drive to right-center to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead.
After Gant's homer tied the score, the Pirates set about getting themselves back in control. Redus lashed a one-out single to left, and moved to third on Bell's double down the left-field line.
Van Slyke then hit a fly to deep right-center that scored Redus, who went 3-for-3 with a single, double and a triple, with the go-ahead run.
Still, Wakefield wasn't through with the excitement. In the eighth, Otis Nixon doubled off the left-center field wall and Jeff Blauser hit a 2-2 pitch down the left-field line that curved about 10 feet foul.
But Blauser grounded to third and the sellout crowd of 56,610, the third-largest in Pittsburgh history, breathed an audible sigh of relief.
Leyland said he briefly considered lifting Wakefield for a pinch hitter if, with a runner on second and two out, the Braves had walked Jose Lind to get to the pitcher's spot.
"If I had taken out Wakefield, I probably would have been snipered. And it probably would have been my mother," said Leyland.
Instead, the Pirates and Leyland got to live for another day.
And Wakefield, showing all the brashness of youth and the resilience of a knuckleballer, said that with a little care, he could come right back and give his team seven or eight innings tomorrow night on just one day's rest.
Who knows? Leyland might be tempted to take him up on that offer.
* Pirates-Braves scoring Braves fourth: Pendleton struck out. Justice grounded out to first baseman Redus. Bream homered to right on 2-2 count. Gant popped out to third baseman King. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Braves 1, Pirates 0.
Pirates fifth: Slaught homered to left-center on the first pitch. Lind flied out to right fielder Justice. Wakefield grounded out to third baseman Pendleton. Redus walked. Bell grounded into fielder's choice to second, Redus forced at second, second baseman Lemke to shortstop Blauser. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 1 left on. Braves 1, Pirates 1.
Pirates sixth: Van Slyke doubled to right. Bonds flied out to center fielder Nixon, Van Slyke to third. King doubled to right-center, Van Slyke scored. McClendon struck out. Slaught was intentionally walked. Lind grounded out to second baseman Lemke. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Pirates 2, Braves 1.
Braves seventh: Justice grounded out to first baseman Redus. Bream popped out to shortstop Bell. Gant homered to left on the first pitch. Berryhill grounded out to first baseman Redus, pitcher Wakefield covering. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Braves 2, Pirates 2.
Pirates seventh: Wakefield grounded out to shortstop Blauser. Redus singled to center. Bell doubled to left, Redus to third. Stanton relieved Glavine. Van Slyke hit sacrifice fly to right fielder Justice, Redus scored, Bell to third. Bonds lined out to center fielder Nixon. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Pirates 3, Braves 2.