ATLANTA -- The Cincinnati Reds had to know this was a distinct possibility. Everybody did. You face perennial Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux in Atlanta after losing the first two games of a best-of-seven series at home and you've got to figure that it won't be long before everyone starts waving those foam rubber tomahawks and getting ready for a party.
The only question was whether the Braves' offense would show up, but when reserve catcher Charlie O'Brien cranked a three-run homer off Cincinnati starter David Wells in the bottom of the sixth inning, very little was left in doubt.
Maddux turned in the best postseason performance of his career and Rookie of the Year candidate Chipper Jones added a two-run homer in the seventh as the Braves scored a 5-2 victory at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and moved to the brink of a four-game sweep in the National League Championship Series.
Left-hander Steve Avery can bring home the Braves' third NL pennant in five years tonight with a victory in Game 4, but even if he doesn't, the Reds appear to be in an impossible situation. No team in postseason history has recovered from a three-game deficit.
Maddux gave up a run on seven hits over eight innings and carried a shutout into the eighth before the Reds pushed across only their fourth run of the series. Braves closer Mark Wohlers worked the ninth in a nonsave situation and gave up the other run before putting the nonsellout crowd of 51,424 on World Series alert.
"Tonight, I thought he was typical Greg Maddux," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "He was very good . . . awfully tough. I thought he might throw a shutout the way he was going, but his pitch count got up there. He was done."
And so, apparently, are the Reds, who will turn to ace Pete Schourek on three days' rest to try to keep them alive tonight.
"We've still got to win one more game," Cox said. "I'm glad we're 3-0 instead of 0-3, but they've got a great ballclub."
No one can dispute that. The Reds came back from a 1-8 start this year to run away with the NL Central title. They swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the divisional series. No one said it was going to be easy, and it hasn't been. The Braves had to win two extra-inning games at Riverfront Stadium to get home in such a favorable position.
nTC "We're not there yet," Maddux said. "The Reds are a very good team. I don't really feel like it's over. I love our chances -- don't get me wrong -- but we're not there yet."
Everyone figured Game 3 for a mismatch. Maddux has established himself as the most dominating pitcher in baseball the past four years, and is a lock to win an unprecedented fourth straight National League Cy Young Award. Wells won six of 10 decisions after he was acquired from the Detroit Tigers in late July. He is a frontline starting pitcher, but no one has ever described him as dominating.
The early innings played out predictably. Maddux did not give up a hit until the third and Wells had trouble keeping the Braves off base. He had so much trouble, in fact, that the Braves had to bail him out of a couple of very difficult situations.
Here's how hittable he was: Five of the first eight Atlanta batters hit safely. Here's how resourceful the Braves were: Not one of those guys scored.
Maddux got into a jam in the third, though there was little indication that the Reds had figured him out. Wells lined a sharp single to left for the first hit of the game and Maddux proceeded to load the bases with a walk to leadoff man Thomas Howard and a fastball off the hand of left fielder Ron Gant, but he got out of it by striking out Reggie Sanders in what would turn out to be the pivotal at-bat for the Reds.
"He's a dangerous hitter," Maddux said. "He's a power hitter who can score four runs with one swing. I was just fortunate that I was able to get him to go after a ball up in the strike zone."
It was just a matter of time before Maddux cranked up a big game in the postseason. He came into October with a 1-2 record and an inflated 8.10 career ERA in playoff competition. He had pitched decently in the divisional series against the Colorado Rockies (1-0, 4.50 ERA), but the baseball world -- and half of a national television audience -- was still waiting to see the pitcher who was 35-8 with a 1.60 ERA over the past two seasons.
This time, he delivered, giving up just three hits over the first six innings while he waited for the Braves to take advantage of one of the many scoring opportunities that were presented to them in the course of the evening. O'Brien, an eight-year journeyman who has become Maddux's personal catcher, finally took care of that with his first postseason home run.
"You're only as good as your catcher," Maddux said. "I feel like I've got the best catcher in the game right now, and he also got the big hit tonight."
If Maddux was looking for postseason vindication, he found it, but he downplayed the importance of his own postseason statistics.
"I don't really look at it that way," he said. "I know there has been a lot written about that. My postseason numbers don't look very good because I haven't pitched very good in my other postseason games. But what's good is that we're up 3-0. We're a win away from the World Series. That feels a lot better than proving somebody wrong."