ATLANTA -- The World Series was made for light-hitting catchers. Just ask Rick Dempsey or Steve Yeager or even Damon Berryhill.
Last night, you could have asked Ed Sprague, whose pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning brought the Toronto Blue Jays from behind to defeat the Atlanta Braves, 5-4, and even the 89th World Series at a game apiece.
The Blue Jays were in danger of going back to Canada in a must-sweep-at-home situation. When stopper Jeff Reardon retired the first batter of the ninth inning, Toronto was left with a pair of inexperienced pinch hitters.
But rookie Derek Bell worked Reardon for a walk and Sprague pulled a line drive into the left-field bleachers to change the complexion of the entire series.
Looking for a local angle? Sprague is the son of Orioles scout Ed Sprague. Looking for an international angle? He became a hero to millions of Canadian baseball fans when he kept the club from going home down two games in the best- of-seven series.
To that point, Sprague's main claim to fame was the fact he was married to Olympian Kristen Babb-Sprague, who narrowly defeated a Canadian to win the gold medal in synchronized swimming. The guy only had one home run during the regular season.
"I was happy to get a chance to pinch hit in a situation like that," Sprague said. "Cito [Gaston] has given me some big at-bats this year. I struck out in the ninth inning against Dennis Eckersley in the playoffs because I was too anxious. I think that at-bat helped me tonight."
"It was pretty tough to have this happen in a World Series," said Reardon, who has saved more games than any pitcher in history. "I got out of the eighth and then I walk a guy in the ninth. I got the ball down. I usually get guys out with the high fastball, but it didn't happen tonight."
To that point, the player of the game was Braves right-hander John Smoltz, who seemed well on his way to his first World Series victory and his fifth career postseason win without a loss. He had taken a shutout into the fifth inning and a two-run lead into the eighth.
Smoltz worked 7 1/3 innings and gave up three runs (two earned) on eight hits. He struck out eight and seemed to be in position to send the Braves north with plenty of breathing room for the three games at SkyDome.
He outpitched Cone, who was run into the ground in a 4 1/3 -inning performance that again exposed his vulnerability to the stolen base. The Milwaukee Brewers proved it with an eight-steal performance in his regular-season debut for the Blue Jays. The Oakland A's proved it during the playoffs. The Braves confirmed it with a five-steal performance that tied a World Series record.
Cone gave up four runs on five hits and five walks, which left him looking like a loser until Sprague came through. The running game obviously had an effect, and the Blue Jays had no answer for it.
Braves manager Bobby Cox inserted Deion Sanders into the No. 2 spot in the lineup just to terrorize Cone, who gave up six stolen bases in one of his playoff starts against the A's. The results were almost immediate. The Braves stole four bases in the first five innings, two of which led directly to runs. Sanders stole two himself, the second forcing an error by catcher Pat Borders and setting up a go-ahead run in the fifth.
"Deion had a very good game," Cox said. "He got on base a couple of times and he hit the ball hard."
There was more to the Braves' running game than the stolen base. They also used the hit-and-run to perfection in the fourth, taking advantage of a walk and a single to put runners at first and third with no one out. Game 1 hero Damon Berryhill could not get the run home, but Mark Lemke poked a ground ball to the right side that skipped past a diving Roberto Alomar and brought home the second Atlanta run.
The Blue Jays looked like they were going to get a gift run in the top of that inning, but a disputed call by home-plate umpire Mike Reilly kept the shutout alive. Alomar tried to score from third on a pitch that bounced away from Berryhill, but he was out when Berryhill pounced on the ball and flipped it to Smoltz.
Or was he?
Alomar slid headfirst and appeared to have his hand on the plate well before Smoltz dropped the tag on his upper arm. The video replay showed as much, but the inning was over anyway.
"He was safe," Gaston said. "That's about all I have to say about it."
Reilly defended the call.
"In my judgment Smoltz made the tag and he [Alomar] was out," Reilly said. "That's really all there was to it."
The Blue Jays had to wait until the fifth to break through, and they had to get a second hit from Cone to do it. His two-out RBI single to center brought home the first run and kept the inning alive long enough for Devon White to tie the game with a run-scoring infield single.
Smoltz had been dominant up to that point. He even got the first two outs of that inning before Borders walked and Manuel Lee looped a broken-bat single to right.
The second run of the inning would not have scored without an assist from Braves first baseman Sid Bream, who cut off Otis Nixon's throw to the plate and threw the ball right back into center field for an error that allowed Lee to move to third.
The Braves came right back to take another two-run lead in the bottom of the inning on an RBI single by David Justice and a sacrifice fly by pinch hitter Brian Hunter. It looked like it would be enough -- even after the Blue Jays made it a one-run game on an eighth-inning RBI single by Dave Winfield.
"Give some credit to the young guys," Winfield said afterward. "Derek Bell really worked Reardon for that walk and Sprague came through for us. That was a big lift. It's a lot easier going home even than going back two games down. I think the momentum has swung our way."
Braves-Blue Jays scoring
Braves second: Justice walked. Bream flied to center fielder White. Justice stole second. Blauser grounded into fielder's choice, shortstop Lee to third baseman Gruber, Justice to third on shortstop Lee's throwing error. Blauser stole second. On Cone's wild pitch, Justice scored, Blauser to third. Berryhill walked. Lemke grounded into double play, shortstop Lee to first baseman Olerud, Berryhill forced at second. 1 run, 0 hits, 1 error, 1 left on. Braves 1, Blue Jays 0.
Braves fourth: Bream walked. Blauser singled to right, Bream to third. Berryhill lined to right fielder Winfield. Lemke singled to right, Bream scored, Blauser to third. Smoltz grounded into double play, shortstop Lee to first baseman Olerud, Lemke forced at second. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Braves 2, Blue Jays 0.
Blue Jays fifth: Olerud flied to right fielder Justice. Gruber grounded to third baseman Pendleton. Borders walked. Lee singled to right-center, Borders to second. Cone singled to center, Borders scored, Lee to second; on first baseman Bream's throwing error, Lee to third, Cone to second. White singled to second, Lee scored, Cone to third. Alomar grounded into fielder's choice, shortstop Blauser to second baseman Lemke, White forced at second. 2 runs, 3 hits, 1 error, 2 left on. Blue Jays 2, Braves 2.
Braves fifth: Nixon struck out. Sanders singled to right. Sanders stole and advanced to third on catcher Borders' throwing error. Pendleton walked. Justice singled to right, Sanders scored, Pendleton to third. Wells relieved Cone. Hunter, pinch hitting for Bream, hit sacrifice fly to right fielder Winfield, Pendleton scored. Blauser walked, Justice to second. Berryhill struck out. 2 runs, 2 hits, 1 error, 2 left on. Braves 4, Blue Jays 2.
Blue Jays eighth: White flied to center fielder Nixon. Alomar doubled down the left-field line. Carter singled to center, Alomar to third. Winfield singled to right, Alomar scored, Carter to third. Stanton relieved Smoltz. Olerud popped to third baseman Pendleton. Reardon relieved Stanton. Gruber struck out. 1 run, 3 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Braves 4, Blue Jays 3.
Blue Jays ninth: Belliard to shortstop. Borders lined to right fielder Justice. Bell, pinch hitting for Lee, walked. Sprague, pinch hitting for D. Ward, homered to left on 0-0 count, Bell and Sprague scored. White grounded to first baseman Hunter. Alomar popped out on bunt to second baseman Lemke. 2 runs, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Blue Jays 5, Braves 4.