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Can Indians still find the clutch after 2-0 stall?


ATLANTA -- They rallied in the regular season, winning 27 games in their final at-bat. And they rallied in the postseason, winning a five-hour marathon in their opener against Boston, then the final three games against Seattle.

The Cleveland Indians are a gifted team, a clutch team, a fiery team. But the only way they'll be considered a great team is if they pull off one of the biggest comebacks in World Series history. A comeback from a two-games-to-none deficit against Atlanta that could require two victories over Greg Maddux.

"It's going to be as big a test as we've faced in a long time," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said after last night's 4-3 defeat at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. "I've got no reason to believe we won't show up to play, play hard, play aggressively. That doesn't concern me at all."

Fair enough, but 42 teams have taken a 2-0 lead in the Series, and 32 have prevailed. The Indians' task is even more daunting because they lack home-field advantage. Of the 27 teams that have won the first two games of the Series at home, 23 have gone on to win the title.

The Indians must be stunned -- the Braves are as resilient as they are. They've now won seven straight games in the postseason. They've overcome early deficits twice in this Series. And Jacobs Field won't scare them -- they're 4-0 on the road in the postseason, with all four victories coming in their last at-bat.

"We're in the driver's seat now, but there's still a long, long way to go," Braves right fielder David Justice said. "I'm looking forward to the challenge of playing at Jacobs Field. I know the fans are crazy there, but they can't be any crazier than the fans in Colorado."

So, is a turnaround possible? Of course, it's possible. The Indians can get hot and make teams look silly. The problem is, they're not hot, haven't been hot for most of the postseason, aren't going to get hot against the best pitching staff in baseball.

Their 3-4-5 hitters -- Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle and Eddie Murray -- are a combined 2-for-20. Belle and Baerga are fighting ankle problems, but remember all the talk about the depth of the Cleveland attack? The mighty Indians are batting .125.

It's not just the Braves' rotation anymore. Finally, their bullpen is formidable, too. Mark Wohlers is the closer Atlanta lacked in the 1992 World Series against Toronto and the '93 NL Championship Series against Philadelphia. Relievers suffered four of the Braves' eight losses in those two series.

This club actually went 15 straight postseason games without a save until Wohlers saved Game 1 of the divisional series against Colorado. And Wohlers was there again last night, working the final 1 1/3 innings to preserve the victory.

The crowd stood and roared in the ninth, and no one had to cover his eyes in fear, not even after Omar Vizquel reached second with two outs. Wohlers popped up Baerga, fireworks lit up the sky and the boldest fans chanted, "Sweep! Sweep!"

Yet, it wasn't just Wohlers. Starter Tom Glavine wasn't especially sharp, but he allowed only three hits in six innings, including a two-run homer by Murray. And it wasn't reliever Greg McMichael's fault that the Indians cut the lead to one run in the seventh. Mike Devereaux misplayed a two-out fly ball in left, leading to an unearned run.

Alejandro Pena escaped that inning by popping up Belle with runners on first and third, and catcher Javy Lopez helped end another threat in the eighth, adding to the heroics of his two-run homer by picking off Manny Ramirez at first.

Wohlers replaced Pena after a walk to Jim Thome and recorded the final four outs. For the second straight night, the Braves won a one-run game, further evidence that their time has come. Five of the seven games in their memorable '91 World Series loss to Minnesota were decided by one run.

The Braves now have beaten the two pitchers that carried the Indians through the first two rounds, Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez. Hershiser asked out of Game 1. Martinez struggled through 5 2/3 innings last night. The hopes of reversing the Indians' 47-year championship drought now rest with Charles Nagy.

The Indians fell behind 1-0 and 2-1 in the ALCS against Seattle, but this is a far deeper hole. The Seattle Mariners had an exhausted Randy Johnson unavailable until Game 3. The Braves got a monster performance from Maddux in Game 1, and can use him on three days' rest in games 4 and 7.

Then again, if they go up 3-0, manager Bobby Cox can start left-hander Steve Avery in Game 4, and pitch Maddux on his normal rest in Game 5. Either way, the Braves are in an enviable position, especially at such a late stage of the season.

The Indians were good enough to win 100 games in a 144-game schedule, but this is their first trip to the postseason since 1954 -- and the Braves' fourth in the '90s. The Braves are giving those Cleveland upstarts a lesson. A lesson on what it takes to win in October.

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