After wild West race, Braves are running on empty


ATLANTA -- The room was so quiet, you heard the air conditioning coming through the vents. Even a half-hour after their crushing, 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Atlanta Braves were invisible. They were too tired, too stunned to deal with TV.

A few Braves were in the players' lounge, watching a replay of Lenny Dykstra's home run. A few sought refuge in the trainer's room or the weight room. Anywhere but their lockers, where the Braves would have to explain the inexplicable -- how a team that considers the postseason its private property could allow the Phillies to trespass all over Game 5.

The Braves' only defense was denial. That is, to dismiss this crisis as "just the way we've gotten used to doing things around here," in Otis Nixon's words. The Braves like to say this is 1991, and that Games 6 and 7 at Veterans Stadium won't be any more difficult than Games 6 and 7 against the Pirates two years ago.

That's when Steve Avery and John Smoltz accomplished a near-miracle, throwing back-to-back shutouts against Pittsburgh. And that started the Braves' magical -- but draining -- run through the '90s.

The key word here is draining. For all the folklore about their October voodoo, the Braves have come to realize that living on adrenaline has its surcharge. The Braves are emotionally spent -- tired from their 162-game race with the Giants, and nearly out of fuel after discovering the Phillies don't break in the late innings, either.

Now Atlanta is leaning on Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, but the truth is unless the Braves score big in Game 6 . . . well, their 5-13 postseason record in one-run games says the Braves are more fragile than anyone knows.

"It's because, eventually, the close games start to take something out of you emotionally," Jeff Blauser was saying, an assessment that spoke of the darker implication of the Braves' ninth-inning comeback.

Oh, how certain the Braves were of Mark Lemke's line drive into the left-field corner with the score tied 3-3 and the winning run on third -- one that would have beaten Mitch Williams.

Lemke said: "I definitely thought the ball was fair off the bat. And Milt [Thompson] had no chance for it." But the ball hooked foul, and you could see Thompson stop sprinting at the line, breathing deeply. Lemke was right, Thompson never got close to the ball. At that moment, you could feel the Braves die a little, all of them. Blauser explained it best.

"You ever been to Six Flags?" he asked. "They've got a ride there called the Ninja -- it's an unbelievable roller coaster. You go straight up, and then a second later you're going straight down. I think it's fair to say that's how we felt."

Going up was a pure adrenaline rush, a clone of so many others the Braves have lived through. They were trailing 3-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, but suddenly Curt Schilling lost the strike zone on Blauser, and Kim Batiste made another error on another 5-4-3 double play off Ron Gant's bat and Williams -- recovering from food poisoning -- didn't have much of a fastball.

In the span of four batters, Williams allowed three singles and a sacrifice fly. Even Lemke, who had struck out twice in his first three at-bats, had no trouble catching up to Williams' heater. He nailed it perfectly, too. If only . . . if only . . . Lemke heard himself say that as the ball landed four feet outside the line. Suddenly, the ballpark went quiet, and Williams stood on the mound rubbing up a new ball.

Usually, such moments belong to the hitter. A long, angry line drive, even if it's a foul ball, is his way of telling a pitcher how lucky he was to survive, that his best fastball has just been smoked.

Instead, Lemke said: "I told myself, 'One of the best closers in the game has you in a hole and you almost got out. Now you've got to start over.' " There was no celebration in the Braves' dugout. Lemke's foul ball was just that -- a foul ball, another chance for Williams.

Now came the dive, straight down. Williams broke off a mean slider, too vicious for Lemke to handle. The Braves' little infielder swung over it and later called it "an unbelievable pitch."

One out later, and the Phillies were the ones high-fiving in the dugout, even though they never should have been forced to play extra innings. Suddenly, it wasn't the Braves who tied the game; it was the Phillies who survived catastrophe.

It seemed like a minute after that, Dykstra was abusing Mark Wohlers' fastball, a homer to deep right-center. With their adrenaline tanks empty, the Braves had no response. A 40-year-old journeyman named Larry Andersen struck out Blauser and Gant to end the game, and all around that quiet clubhouse, you could sense how weary the Braves had become, tired of the endless search for miracles.

Nixon conceded: "We better win big [tomorrow] because we're sure not doing the little things in the close games."

So the eyes turn to Maddux, a plea to get the Braves to Glavine. Somehow, the Braves tell themselves, there will be a Game 7. And after that, a World Series. Somehow. It's a lot to ask of the October gods.

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