Series guarantee: Nothing will go according to form


TORONTO -- Kelly Gruber ended a record-breaking futility streak with a game-tying home run. Dave Winfield delivered a sacrifice bunt for only the sixth time since 1986. Candy Maldonado flailed at two curveballs before slapping a third for the game-winning hit.

A loss resulting from such cosmic interference might ordinarily be dismissed, but this is the World Series. All the Atlanta Braves know is they have led in the eighth inning of every game, their starting pitchers have posted a 1.85 ERA, and they're trailing two games to one.

Such is the profile of a club lacking an effective closer, but don't blame last night's 3-2 loss to Toronto solely on the beleaguered Jeff Reardon. Every time the Braves enter a domed stadium in October, they start running the bases as if suffocating on the lack of fresh air.

Things better change tonight, when Tom Glavine faces Jimmy Key in a matchup of lefthanded control pitchers. The Braves were 34-17 against lefthanded starters this season. Key has worked only five innings since Sept. 29. But no assumption is safe in this wacky post-season.

If Glavine uncorks another four-hitter, this Series ultimately might prove every bit as thrilling as last year's. But if the Braves lose again, it might never return to Atlanta, not with Jack Morris starting for Toronto in Game 5.

Talk about irony: The Braves last night set a post-season record with their 14th consecutive stolen base. They benched Ron Gant and his 32 steals to get even more speed in their lineup. And now they might lose back-to-back World Series because of poor baserunning.

Yes, that was Terry Pendleton picking up right where Lonnie Smith left off in Game 7 last year at the Metrodome, rounding second, passing Deion Sanders and nearly causing a triple play. Yes, that was David Justice making his own blunder, running into the final out of the eighth inning at third base.

Did these teams switch uniforms or something?

Pendleton didn't think Devon White would catch Justice's rocket to deep center. He wanted to score from first and break the scoreless tie in the fourth inning. But suddenly there was White, making a spectacular backhand catch as he crashed into the wall.

It wasn't quite Willie Mays in 1954 -- White, the game's most elegant centerfielder, routinely takes your breath away -- but instead of two runs, the Braves were left with two outs. And then, in the bottom half, Joe Carter hit a home run to give Toronto the lead.

The Braves, however, rallied back, outhitting the Jays 9-6, pulling ahead on Smith's two-out single in the eighth. That play should have been the highlight of the game for Atlanta. Instead, Justice got thrown out trying to go from first to third after seeing Maldonado bobble the ball in left.

And still the Braves weren't done.

On the same play in the ninth, pinch-runner Brian Hunter was caught stealing, and Jeff Blauser was called out on strikes after an appeal. Cox slammed a helmet in frustration, and it accidentaly bounced onto the field for an automatic ejection.

For some reason, Smith stormed plate umpire Joe West, only to be restrained by Pendleton, Sanders and Otis Nixon. West said he originally thought Blauser threw the helmet, only to discover it was Cox. It was a scene of utter disarray. And entirely fitting.

For all Steve Avery's brilliance, the mistakes proved fatal, as so often happens in this unforgiving game. Gruber broke his 0-for-23 post-season slump by crushing a 3-2 changeup for a leadoff homer in the eighth. Roberto Alomar got only his second hit in 12 series at-bats to start the ninth.

That did it for Avery. The Braves summoned their future closer, Mark Wohlers, but the 22-year-old fell behind Carter 2-0, and then Alomar stole second on ball three. That led to an intentional walk, bringing up Winfield with two on and none out.

The Atlanta infielders gathered around Wohlers to discuss the possibility of a bunt, but shortstop Jeff Blauser said no one thought it would happen. Toronto manager Cito Gaston never signaled his runners that Winfield would sacrifice. He merely told Winfield to move them over.

"No one expected it -- not even me," Alomar said.

But the 41-year-old Winfield laid down a perfect bunt toward first base -- a feat all the more impressive considering the righty-righty matchup and the fact Wohlers throws 90 mph.

"He made it look easy," Justice said, shrugging.

"You've got to be versatile when you get to my age," Winfield said, smiling.

The Braves summoned lefthander Mike Stanton to face John Olerud, but Gaston countered with pinch-hitter Ed Sprague. Stanton issued an intentional walk to load the bases with one out. In came Reardon, fresh off the game-winning homer he allowed to Sprague in Game 2.

Maldonado was 2-for-13 off him lifetime, and Reardon noted that he looked "sick" swinging at his first two curveballs. The all-time saves leader desperately needed a strikeout. He tried to throw another curve down and away, but left it up. Maldonado hit it over a drawn-in outfield, and the game was over.

"It's not easy to live with, but I hope go out there again tomorrow," said Reardon, whom the Braves acquired for two minor leaguers Aug. 30 to replace the injured Alejandro Pena. "If you're afraid to go out there, you're not going to be in the big leagues."

Cox said he won't hesitate to summon Reardon tonight, but if the Braves are smart, they'll leave nothing to chance. They're 0-5 in domed stadiums the past two World Series. The worst part about playing under a roof is, you can't count on the stars.

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