ATLANTA -- Someday, when he is old and gray and bouncing grandchildren on his knee, Francisco Cabrera will tell the story of how he bailed out the Atlanta Braves, just one out away from elimination in the 1992 National League playoffs.
And those grandchildren will be as incredulous then as the Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates were last night, when Cabrera slapped a two-out, ninth-inning hit to left to drive in the tying and winning runs as the Braves beat the Pirates, 3-2, in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.
Cabrera, a 25-year-old reserve catcher from the Dominican Republic, was added to the Braves' roster on Aug. 31, just in time to be eligible for the playoffs.
Last night, he made magic.
"It happened. All my dreams came true," said Cabrera, whose single drove in David Justice and Sid Bream to win a game in which the Braves were all but dead.
"He was with us last year and did a great job. He caught pretty darn well and better yet, he's a great pinch hitter," said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox.
Cabrera did, in fact, hit .300 this season with two homers and three RBI, but no hit in his career to date can match the drama that enveloped last night's single.
The Braves, who had led the series three games to one, had been shut out for eight innings by Pittsburgh's Doug Drabek, who was three outs away from propelling the left-for-dead Pirates into the World Series.
Instead, Atlanta, on the strength of a miracle ninth inning, won its second straight pennant and will open the World Series at home Saturday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, who beat the Oakland Athletics, 9-2, earlier yesterday to win the American League pennant.
For the Pirates, Cabrera's base hit was just the latest in a three-year odyssey of postseason pain.
Pittsburgh lost to the Cincinnati Reds in six games in the 1990 playoffs, and dropped the 1991 series to the Braves in seven games.
But it may be a long time before the Pirates organization, which may lose Drabek and star outfielder Barry Bonds to free agency, recovers from the most heartbreaking of flameouts.
"This is a lesson for all the Little Leaguers," said Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland. "This is a real tough one, without question the toughest loss I've ever had to handle, but this is life and you have to deal with it and that's what I'm trying to do."
tTC Atlanta's John Smoltz, who left in the sixth, but won games 1 and 4, was named the series Most Valuable Player.
"It erases a lot of bad memories that could have occurred if we had lost tonight along with the last couple of nights. It's heavy," said Smoltz.
The Pirates had scored 20 runs in games 5 and 6 to pull even in the series and scored single runs in the first and sixth innings to lead 2-0.
With Drabek, who allowed just five hits and struck out five in eight innings, looking so sharp, it appeared that his right arm would be all the Pirates would need to become the first National League team to win a playoff after trailing 3-1.
That is, until the ninth inning, which started with Terry Pendleton leading off with a double into the right-field corner.
Justice, the right fielder who threw out Pittsburgh first baseman Orlando Merced trying to score from first on Jeff King's eighth-inning double, reached when Jose Lind could not cleanly field a grounder hit to second at the outfield grass.
Former Pirate Bream walked to load the bases with none out, and that was all for Drabek, who had wriggled out of a bases-loaded none-out jam in the sixth.
Reliever Stan Belinda, the Pirates' fairly regular closer, was summoned and induced Ron Gant, who had a grand slam in Game 2, to fly deep to left, driving in Pendleton.
Catcher Damon Berryhill walked to reload the bases with one out. Pinch hitter Brian Hunter hit a liner to Lind for the second out, and for an ever-so-brief moment, it looked as though Belinda might be able to pitch the Pirates to a long-awaited pennant.
But up came Cabrera, who had homered off Belinda in a game last season. He worked the count to 2-0, then fouled a pitch down the left-field line before slapping a drive through the hole between short and third.
"I said, 'Well, I got a green light and I've got to hit the ball good.' I knew I had to be ready," said Cabrera. "The guy's tough, but there was no tomorrow."
The single landed in front of Bonds, who came up firing to the plate. Justice scored easily, and Bream, one of the slowest runners in the league after having five knee operations, was waved home.
Bream, who was not lifted for a pinch runner because Cox had used all but one of his regulars, slid into the plate, just beating catcher Mike LaValliere's tag, and sending what was left of the 51,975 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium into long, loud delirium and the Pirates into long, silent despair.
"The Pittsburgh Pirates walked tall tonight and through this series, but just not quite as tall as the Atlanta Braves," said Leyland.
And none walked taller than the most unlikely Brave, Francisco Cabrera.
NL playoff MVPs
1977: Dusty Baker, Dodgers
1978: Steve Garvey, Dodgers
1979: Willie Stargell, Pirates
1980: Manny Trillo, Phillies
1981: Burt Hooton, Dodgers
1982: Darrell Porter, Cards
1983: Gary Matthews, Phillies
1984: Steve Garvey, Padres
1985: Ozzie Smith, Cardinals
1986: Mike Scott, Astros
1987: Jeffrey Leonard, Giants
1988: Orel Hershiser, Dodgers
1989: Will Clark, Giants
1990: Rob Dibble and Randy Myers, Reds
1991: Steve Avery, Braves
1992: John Smoltz, Braves