CINCINNATI -- A clutch hit is an elusive concept to Cincinnati right fielder Reggie Sanders these days, which makes him no different than the rest of the Reds. He tried to explain why, after the Reds repeatedly blew chances to break a tie before losing to Atlanta in 10 innings last night, 6-2, in Game 2 of the NLCS.
Sometimes it's anxiousness, Sanders said. You swing at pitches out of the strike zone, or maybe it's because of the Braves pitching. Sounding confused, he stopped suddenly. Paused. "I don't know," he said.
He and the Reds better get a clue in a hurry. They are down two games to none in a best-of-seven series, they face Atlanta ace Greg Maddux in Game 3 tomorrow, and the emotional momentum in this series is the sole property of the Braves, who scored four runs in the 10th on Mark Portugal's wild pitch and a three-run homer by catcher Javy Lopez. Maybe all those Reds fans who stayed away -- 43,257 were in attendance, about 10,000 below capacity -- were simply prescient.
"It's disheartening to be in your park and lose two extra-inning games," said Reds manager Davey Johnson. "We're just having trouble scoring runs. We have a guy on third base, no outs and the heart of our lineup coming up, we should be able to get a run. This is not like our offense."
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.
Portugal, normally a starter, came on in relief in 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 walked intentionally. 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.
The Braves dugout rippled with high-fives and low-fives, hugs and handshakes. The Reds dugout -- emotional low-tide.
"I'd rather give credit than [blame] our guys," Johnson said, "and you have to give Atlanta's pitching credit."
Hitting the Braves is tough enough, but as Atlanta starter John Smoltz explained, a starting pitcher can glean a real advantage in the postseason. The hitter sees you two or three or four times, always with a sense of postseason urgency. He must make adjustments, and he must respond immediatedly.
Sanders (one hit in two games) is not responding. Ron Gant (2-for-9) is not responding. Hal Morris (1-for-7) is not responding.
"There's no question," said Sanders, "that those guys make it tough."
Smoltz struck out Sanders to end the fourth inning, and at that juncture, he had faced only one 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.
But with a couple of bunts, the Reds scored twice in the fifth and tied the score 2-2. (Smoltz would say later that he felt as if he hadn't allowed any runs, due to the way Cincinnati had scored its runs).
For the next four innings, the Reds and Braves competed in a duel of offensive incompetence.
* The Braves had runners at first and second with one out in the sixth. Former Oriole Mike Devereaux, who drove in Atlanta's second run, bounced into a double play. Nothing.
* The Braves loaded the bases with two out in the seventh, and Chipper Jones grounded out to first. Nothing.
* Bret Boone reached second with two outs in the seventh, but Thomas Howard grounded to second. Nothing.
* McGriff doubled to open the eighth inning for Atlanta. Three straight outs followed. No runs.
* Barry Larkin doubled to start the bottom of the eighth. A pop-up by Gant, strikeout by Sanders and a strikeout of Santiago. No runs.
* Boone walked leading off the ninth for Cincinnati, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt . . . and the rally died. No runs.
"Reggie Sanders is not alone," said Johnson. "There are a lot of other guys struggling, too."
And now the struggling Reds must face Maddux, the guy who's is being compared with Sandy Koufax and Walter Johnson and every other pitching legend. Maddux is expected to win his fourth straight Cy Young Award later this year.
"It's not a pleasant thought," Johnson said.
* The Reds haven't had many.
(Both series best of seven)
Last night: Indians, 5-2
Series: Tied, 1-1
Game 3: Tomorrow, 8:07, Jacobs Field, Cleveland, chs. 11, 4
Starters: Mariners' Randy Johnson (20-2, 2.49) vs. Indians' Charles Nagy (17-6, 4.43)
NL: Braves vs. Reds
Last night: Braves, 6-2, 10 inn.
Series: Braves lead, 2-0
Game 3: Tomorrow, 8:07, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium
Starters: Reds' David Wells (7-5, 3.30) vs. Braves' Greg Maddux