ATLANTA -- Nothing like this happened to the Cleveland Indians during the regular season. If a big pitch was required, they got it. A run down in the eighth inning, and they would come back. If they needed a clutch single, somebody would hit a home run.
But nothing like this is happening. The Indians, the team that did everything right for five months, is doing everything wrong against the Atlanta Braves, who won Game 2 of the World Series last night, 4-3. Catcher Javy Lopez bashed a mistake thrown by Cleveland veteran Dennis Martinez for a two-run, tie-breaking homer in the sixth inning.
Atlanta leads the best-of-seven series two games to none, and postseason ace John Smoltz pitches Game 3 for the Braves in Cleveland tomorrow night, facing Charles Nagy.
"This could be the biggest challenge we've faced in a long time," said Indians manager Mike Hargrove.
The biggest challenge since 1954, to be precise. The Indians played in the World Series that year, after winning 111 games, one of the great regular-season performances in history. And the New York Giants swept them in the World Series.
The Indians will be swept again, if they cannot take advantage of the few mistakes made by the Braves' pitching staff, and if they cannot avoid the mistakes they made in Game 2.
Dennis Martinez, who dominated the final game of the American League Championship Series, made mistakes. Lots of them. "Dennis struggled the entire game," Hargrove said. "I didn't see him moving his fastball like he normally does."
Martinez hit Marquis Grissom with a two-strike breaking ball to begin the Braves' two-run rally in the third inning, hurt himself with a brutal pickoff attempt -- Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel needed one of those handy 12-foot gloves to catch the throw that bounded into center field -- and his failure to field a hot smash back to the mound cost him the second run.
But he committed the ultimate mistake in the sixth, pitching with the score tied 2-2. David Justice singled to open the inning and advanced to second when the ball ricocheted off Cleveland left fielder Albert Belle. Ryan Klesko pulled a grounder to the right side, advancing Justice to third, and pitching coach Mark Wiley went to the mound to talk to Martinez.
The Indians had plenty of options with the powerful Lopez due to hit. They could intentionally walk him, bring light-hitting shortstop Rafael Belliard to the plate and force the Braves to insert a pinch hitter or hope for contact from Belliard. They could effectively pitch around Lopez, Martinez throwing pitches around the edges of the plate and hope the free-swinging Lopez would chase them.
Or they could pitch to Lopez and look for the strikeout, which is what they did.
Martinez got ahead in the count against Lopez, one ball and two strikes. Lopez guessed that Martinez would throw a fastball. "I just wanted to be aggressive," he said, "and hope for the best."
Martinez threw a pitch so awful that even on replay it was hard to tell whether Martinez unleashed a weak fastball, a staid breaking pitch or a changeup. And there were many replays of that pitch: Lopez hammered a low line drive over the center-field wall. The ball fell, the crowd rose. The body of Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton, seeing disaster disappear over the wall, bent forward in frustration.
Hargrove flinched a bit at the first question asked of him after the game: Did you consider not pitching to Lopez in the sixth inning?
"No, we felt Dennis could get him out." he said.
He didn't. The biggest mistake, among many Cleveland mistakes.
Like in the seventh inning. The Indians, down 4-2, scored a run when Braves defensive replacement Mike Devereaux lost a ball in the lights in left field, a two-base error. Carlos Baerga coaxed a two-out walk from Braves reliever Greg McMichael, and Atlanta manager Bobby Cox called for right-hander Alejandro Pena to face Albert Belle with the potential tying and lead runs on base.
All year, the Indians won games like this. Runners on base, Belle at the plate, somebody would throw a bad pitch and Belle would hammer the ball. Pena made two mistakes, Lopez admitted later. A slider that hung over the plate, and a fastball that resembled the one Martinez threw to Lopez in the sixth inning.
Belle fouled off the first mistake, popped out on the second. "We were lucky," Lopez said. "Very lucky."
Another mistake, in the eighth inning. Cleveland right fielder Manny Ramirez blooped a one-out single into center. Ramirez wanted to score on any extra-base hit, and he ranged far off first with each pitch. Lopez saw this, and with left-handed hitter Jim Thome at the plate, he called for an inside fastball. Something he could catch easily and throw.
Lopez caught, fired a bullet to first -- zing -- where Fred McGriff slapped a tag on Ramirez diving back to the bag. Out. Down a run and Ramirez got picked off.
"It's in our scouting report that Lopez likes to throw," said Hargrove. "We're aware of it, and Manny's aware of it. He just didn't get back."
Two outs into the ninth and Mark Wohlers, the dominant closer the Braves didn't have in the 1991 and 1992 World Series, pitched to Baerga with the tying run on second. And just as he had done at the end of Game 1, Baerga popped to third. Deja vu, Chipper Jones thought as he waited for the ball to fall into his glove.
"It was a huge win tonight," Jones said. "It assures us that no matter what happens in Cleveland, we can come back here to the Chop Shop."
There won't be a sixth or seventh game if the Indians play as they did in Game 2.
Cleveland Indians vs. Atlanta Braves
Last night: Braves, 4-3
Series: Braves lead 2-0
Game 3: Tomorrow night, 8:20, Jacobs Field, Cleveland, chs. 11, 4
Starters: Braves' John Smoltz (12-7) vs. Indians' Charles Nagy (16-6)
:. Note: Pitchers' records include postseason