ATLANTA -- The National League Championship Series didn't live up to the hype, but you won't hear anybody complaining about that on Peachtree Street. The Atlanta Braves are going to the World Series, and nobody around here really cares that the Cincinnati Reds didn't do much to stand in their way.
The Braves scored five runs in the seventh inning last night to break open a tight game and score a 6-0 victory that left the 52,067 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with a happy but difficult choice -- whether to wave tomahawks or brooms as they celebrated the club's third trip to the Fall Classic in five years.
Surplus starter Steve Avery pitched his best game of the year to tighten a series-long stranglehold on the struggling Reds offense, and former Oriole Mike Devereaux provided the crushing blow as the Braves completed a rare four-game sweep in what was supposed to be a far more competitive playoff matchup.
Devereaux, who was inserted into the lineup an hour before the game when right fielder David Justice was hit in the knee by a batting practice line drive, generated more runs with his three-run homer off reliever Mike Jackson than the Reds scored in any single game. He also had the game-winning hit in Game 1 and drove in as many runs in the series (five) as the entire Reds batting order to earn MVP honors in his first postseason.
"To be able to come over here to clinch the division was a dream come true," Devereaux said. "Going to the playoffs and now the World Series was a personal goal of mine. To get into that situation tonight was totally unbelievable and to win the MVP is far beyond that."
It was a week of redemption for the veteran outfielder, who was not pursued by the Orioles when he became a free agent last year. He signed with the Chicago White Sox and was traded to the Braves on Aug. 25.
He came to the plate last night after Jackson had brought home the Braves' second run with a wild pitch and walked Fred McGriff intentionally to put runners at first and second with one out.
"Mike Jackson usually tries to get ahead on the count and I was determined not to get behind on the count," Devereaux said. "I was looking for a first-pitch fastball and he gave me one up in the zone where I could get some good wood on it."
The towering fly ball easily cleared the left-field fence and sent the sellout crowd into hysterics. There already was every reason to believe the Braves would win the series -- no team ever has recovered from a three-game deficit -- but the Devereaux home run made it a done deal.
Though the first two games in Cincinnati went into extra innings, what started out as a showdown between the two winningest clubs in the NL quickly deteriorated into a mismatch.
"I don't think anybody anticipated either ballclub getting swept," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "Cincinnati just didn't get the timely hitting. They had a great year. They swept the Dodgers. They came in expecting to beat us, but we played real well."
Avery gave up three hits over six innings on the way to his fourth postseason victory. Mark Lemke gave him a slim lead with an RBI single in the third and the Braves batted around in the seventh to assure that the World Series will open in Atlanta on Saturday.
Cox figured he was in a no-lose situation when he inserted Avery into the rotation after the Braves won Game 3. If he pitched Avery in Game 4 and won, then his struggling young left-hander would be able to put a very positive punctuation mark on a disappointing season. If Avery lost, the Braves would have their top three starters rested and ready to take turns going for the pennant clincher.
Avery didn't have a lot of fun during the regular season. He finished 7-13 with a 4.67 ERA, his worst record and highest ERA since he went 3-11 with a 5.64 ERA in a half-season rookie debut in 1990. But Cox wasn't exactly throwing Bob Wolcott out there. Avery may be only 25, but he came into the game with 11 career postseason starts and several impressive performances.
That experience was apparent last night. Avery struck out six and got three double play balls before turning over the game to the Atlanta bullpen in the seventh.
"I don't think people expected it," Avery said. "Maybe they shouldn't have. One of my biggest fears all year was that the guys would lose confidence in me. I never did, but when you're not throwing well you worry about things like that."
This is not what Reds manager Davey Johnson envisioned after his team made short work of the Dodgers in the divisional series. The Reds were one of the best hitting teams in the NL, but they were unable to generate any kind of consistent offense against the Braves' heralded starting rotation.
"I'm surprised, shocked and disappointed," Johnson said during a pre-game news conference. "But Atlanta has a great ballclub. It's one of the strongest clubs they've had here. They have a great bench and the best bullpen they've had. Everybody knows about their starting pitching. They've held an explosive team to less than two runs a game."
Reds starter Pete Schourek did a good job of keeping the Braves' lineup from putting anything together in the early innings, though it was difficult to tell where the good pitching started and the bad hitting left off.
The Braves nearly knocked Schourek out of the game in the third, when Avery hit a sharp one-hopper back up the middle that struck him on his pitching hand. They also had a couple of chances to knock him out by more legitimate means, only to have the heart of the order come up empty in a couple of situations.
Atlanta Braves vs. Cincinnati Reds
( (Braves win series, 4-0)
Game .. .. .. .. .Result
Game 1 .. .. ..Braves, 2-1, 11 inn.
Game 2 .. .. ..Braves, 6-2, 10 inn.
Game 3 .. .. ..Braves, 5-2
Game 4 .. .. ..Braves, 6-0
(Series best of seven)
Last night: Late game
Series: Mariners lead, 2-1
Game 5: Tonight, 7:20, Jacobs Field, Cleveland, chs. 11, 4
Starters: Mariners' Chris Bosio (10-8, 5.17) vs. Indians' Orel Hershiser (18-6, 3.60)
Note: Pitchers' records include playoffs
NL: Braves vs. Reds
Last night: Braves, 6-0
Series: Braves win, 4-0
Braves vs. ALCS winner
Game 1: Saturday night, 7:27, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium