But in the 10th inning last night, the Braves took the lead on Mark Portugal's wild pitch with the bases loaded, and then got one big hit -- a three-run homer by catcher Javy Lopez. Atlanta won, 6-2, beating Cincinnati in extra innings for the second consecutive game.
"We've been in that situation many times," Lopez said. "This is a team that has many wins in the late innings. I believe we're used to it."
The Braves hold a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, and ace Greg Maddux pitches Game 3 tomorrow in Atlanta. Maybe all those Reds fans who stayed away -- 43,257 were in attendance, about 10,000 below capacity -- might have been prescient.
The Reds will blame themselves for losing Game 2, just as the Braves would've blamed themselves had they lost. Cincinnati went 2-for-18 with runners in scoring position, Atlanta 4-for-20. The Braves had the potential lead run at second with less than two outs in the sixth and eighth innings, and couldn't score. Cincinnati put runners at second in the seventh, eighth and ninth, with no payoff.
"It's a very uncomfortable feeling," Reds manager Davey Johnson said. "We've got to score more runs. Our offense just hasn't produced that many."
Portugal, normally a starter, started the 10th inning, and Mark Lemke lined a single to right. He moved to second on a hit-and-run grounder. Fred McGriff, who already had three doubles, was intentionally walked. David Justice singled, but so hard that Braves third base coach Jimy Williams had to stop Lemke at third.
With an 0-2 count on pinch hitter Ryan Klesko, Portugal bounced a breaking ball in front of and then past catcher Benito Santiago. Lemke scampered home with the lead run. Klesko popped out, but Lopez accomplished something rarely seen: He pulled a drive down the left-field line that did not hook. The ball glanced off the foul screen, for a three-run homer.
Mark Wohlers, the third reliever to follow Atlanta starter John Smoltz, finished out the Reds in the bottom of the 10th.
Smoltz struck out Reggie Sanders to end the fourth inning, and at that juncture, he had faced only batter over the minimum. Typical. Dominating in the postseason is a matter of course for the Braves right-hander -- he started the game with a 4-1 record and a 1.93 ERA in six starts. His strikeout of Sanders was his 46th in his career during the playoffs, tying a record jointly held by Nolan Ryan and Jim Palmer.
Hacking at Smoltz's fastballs and sliders had accomplished nothing for the Reds in the first four innings, so they tried a different tact.
Santiago, renowned for his ability to swing at any pitch within a time zone at home plate, a living definition of the term "free-swinger," dumped a bunt down the third base line with one out in the fifth. Single.
Reds second baseman Bret Boone, the next hitter, figuring correctly that the Braves would still be stunned by Santiago's bunt -- and Boone bunted, as well, toward third.
Smoltz jumped off the mound and scampered after Boone's bunt; third baseman Chipper Jones, who had been playing back, had no chance. Smoltz reached down, barehanded the ball, and as his body carried toward the third base line, he threw toward first base, momentum working against his effort to cut down Boone. The ball skipped in front of Braves first baseman McGriff -- an All-Star because of his homers, and not his ability to field short-hops -- and then past him.
Santiago raced to third on the error. A Reds threat in progress, and no ball had been hit more than 50 feet.
Reds third baseman Jeff Branson bounced a ball to McGriff, and although Santiago had broken from third on contact, he had no chance to beat McGriff's throw home; the ball had reached McGriff quickly off the artificial surface. Lopez tagged Santiago for the second out, and Davey Johnson had a decision, with pitcher John Smiley due to bat.
He could let Smiley hit, and likely concede the inning to Smoltz. Or he could pinch hit for Smiley, using his best pinch hitter, Lenny Harris, and hope to take advantage of this rare opportunity. (They don't have these kind of decisions in the AL, with the designated hitter).
Johnson rolled the dice, yanked Smiley and sent Harris to the plate. They battled to a full count, Smoltz vs. Harris. With the runners moving, Harris smashed a grounder through the middle, scoring Boone and sending Branson to third.
Smoltz and the Braves still led, 2-1, with Thomas Howard batting with two outs. But Harris broke from first base, and to the surprise of everyone but himself, Lopez fired to second in an effort to get Harris. Branson, on the back end of the double-steal, --ed home from third, scoring when Lopez's throw skipped off the glove of Braves shortstop Rafael Belliard.
Tie score. It would stay that way into the late innings.
Three batters into the game, the Braves had taken a 1-0 lead against Smiley. Marquis Grissom singled, advanced to second, and scored when Chipper Jones blooped a single to right. Johnson sat in the Reds dugout and shook his head in disgust.
McGriff hit the first of his three doubles in the fourth, but he and the Braves could give many thanks that it was Howard, and not Darren Lewis, playing center.
McGriff's drive carried into left-center, high and deep, and after a long run, Howard slowed slightly and called for the ball -- "I got it, I got it" -- reached down to backhand the fly and. . . . doink. McGriff's fly bounced off his glove, the play ruled a double by the official scorer. (Howard would misplay McGriff's second double as well, over-running the drive as it neared the right-center field wall.) After Justice flied to right and McGriff tagged up and cruised into third, former Orioles outfielder Mike Devereaux slashed a double over the head of Reds left fielder Ron Gant. McGriff jogged home, giving the Braves a 2-0 advantage.