ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- It was merely the biggest game in the history of the world.
Or as close as any baseball game ever comes on Sept. 2, anyway.
Had the Atlanta Braves lost on their home turf to the San Francisco Giants last night, it wouldn't have ended their season, and it wouldn't have ended their first-place dreams. But . . .
"To win this game was huge," Braves pitcher Steve Avery said after his team came stampeding from behind to stun the first-place Giantsagain, 5-3. "If we lose, we're 5 1/2 behind -- six in the loss column. And to make that up in one month against a team like they have is pretty much impossible -- especially with the [lack of] help the rest of the league has been giving us."
Well, the Braves still need help -- because they won't get a chance to visit with their friends from San Francisco again this year. But they won't need as much of that help now, thanks to a memorable victory that changed the race in the National League West one more time.
It was the fifth time in six games that the Braves had beaten the Giants in the last two weeks. When that stretch started, the Braves were 7 1/2 games out of first. Now they're 3 1/2 out, with 29 games left for them and 28 for the Giants.
And when you consider that the Braves knocked five games off that lead in a span of 18 days, a 3 1/2 -game lead is not what you'd call insurmountable.
But now the Braves have to depend on the Pirates and the Cardinals and the Cubs and the Rockies. And let us remember that the Giants -- for all their troubles -- have gone 20-10 against teams other than the Braves over the last five weeks.
"No matter what happened in this series, it wasn't going to make or break the season," Braves second baseman Mark Lemke said. "What's important is how we play the last month."
That last month might not have meant anything if they hadn't won last night.
And when the Giants came right out and mugged Avery to take a quick 3-0 lead, the Braves were almost down to needing a Francisco Cabrera kind of miracle.
They found a way.
They found an ally in Giants manager Dusty Baker, who hooked starter John Burkett after six innings, even though Burkett had thrown just 86 pitches and was coming off his best inning of the night.
They found a rookie named Tony Tarasco to start a game-winning three-run rally in the seventh with a pinch-hit double.
They found Otis Nixon, a guy they almost traded two months ago. He singled in the tying run and then disrupted two Giants relief pitchers until he was standing on third.
And, finally, they found one of their main cogs, Ron Gant, who knocked in his first run of this series in about the strangest way imaginable.
There he was, in a tie game, dueling with reliever Dave Burba, as Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium rocked with chops and chants. He fouled off three two-strike pitches before lining a ball that managed to clunk directly off Burba's posterior.
The ball ricocheted back toward home plate. Nixon found himself in a mismatch of a sprint toward the plate against catcher Kirt Manwaring. Nixon won the race. And the Braves won a critical ball game.
Afterward, an embarrassed Burba stood in the middle of a locker-room media swarm.
Someone asked: "Is it tougher to take a loss like that when it happens on a play like that?"
"I don't want to make a joke about this," said Burba, who then made it anyway. "But, yeah, it hurts.
"What can I say, you know?" he went on. "Whether it's a line drive up the gap or a ball up the middle or a blooper to the outfield, it's still a base hit."
That base hit enabled the Braves to pull off about as literal a come-from-behind victory as is humanly possible. And it won them a game they absolutely, positively had to win -- again.