CLEVELAND -- The Atlanta Braves have been called the Buffalo Bills of baseball, because of their repeated failures in the postseason. Tonight, the Braves can lose that losers' label.
The Braves, on the strength of their pitching and a three-run rally in the seventh, beat Cleveland, 5-2, in Game 4 of the World Series last night, and can clinch the franchise's first world championship since 1957 tonight in Game 5. Luis Polonia and David Justice had the big hits for Atlanta, and Steve Avery pitched six erratic but effective innings.
A nightmare scenario will haunt the Indians today: To stay alive, they must somehow figure out a way to beat Braves ace Greg Maddux, who, as a general rule, doesn't lose.
"I've had more pleasing thoughts," said Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove.
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said: "It's a pretty good feeling. I like the 3-1 [lead], Maddux pitching, and the way we swung the bats tonight. I don't even know where that champagne is, and I don't want to know. If we win one more, we'll break it out."
But the bubbly will be stored someplace close to the Braves clubhouse today -- just in case -- thanks to the contributions from a trio who fought through adversity in Game 4.
Polonia was having a night to remember by the seventh inning last night. A bad night. He had popped up in his first at-bat, with a runner at second, and hit a hard smash in the third that Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel transformed into a groundout. Polonia stewed in the dugout afterward.
His fortune would change in the seventh, which began with the score tied 1-1.
With one out, Atlanta center fielder Marquis Grissom walked, bringing Polonia to the plate.
Perhaps it was the fear of Grissom, representing the potential lead run, stealing second that compelled Indians starter Ken Hill to throw a fastball. Perhaps working from the stretch bothered him. But Hill threw a high fastball, nowhere close to where catcher Sandy Alomar set up, and Polonia pulled it between right fielder Manny Ramirez and center fielder Kenny Lofton, to the wall. Turn and burn, in major-league parlance. Grissom scored and Polonia stood at second and clapped for himself.
Hargrove went to his bullpen, calling on left-hander Paul Assenmacher, who intentionally walked Chipper Jones to pitch to McGriff -- 1-for-12 against Assenmacher.
McGriff struck out, but before he did, both runners advanced on a passed ball by Alomar. The Braves needed a two-out hit from Justice; the Indians, as they had all night, were counting on getting Justice out.
In the first and third innings, Hill had effectively pitched around McGriff, walking him, to pitch to Justice. Little wonder: Justice had an .040 lifetime average (1-for-25) against Hill. Both times, Justice grounded out, killing rallies.
"They were coming after me all night," Justice said, "and I hadn't come through."
But batting against Assenmacher, Justice singled up the middle and both runners scampered home. If the Braves wrap up the Series tonight in Game 5 -- after coming up short in 1991 and 1992 -- Justice's hit will be remembered as the crushing blow to Cleveland's championship dreams.
"It was a relief," Justice said.
Avery, the winning pitcher, threw exceptionally well against Cincinnati in the National League Championship Series, and as the World Series began, Cox leaned heavily toward starting him in Game 4. That would allow Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to throw with a full complement of rest.
Maddux needed just 95 pitches in a complete-game victory in Game 1, and Cox was intrigued by the idea of starting Maddux in Game 4 and again in Game 7, if necessary. Starting a future Hall of Famer in three games out of seven had to sound attractive.
But Cox honored his initial instinct and announced after the Braves won Game 2 that Avery would start Game 4, leaving himself open to second-guessing after Cleveland won Game 3. If Avery pitched poorly and allowed the Series to be tied 2-2, critics would remind Cox all winter that, in holding back Maddux, he let the Indians off the hook.
Judging by the expressions that assumed control of his face in the first two innings, Cox may have been second-guessing himself. Lots of grimacing, some shakes of the head. Avery did not have his good stuff, a problem augmented by a distinct lack of control. His slider slid high, his fastball was imprecise, and the Indians were taking some healthy hacks.
Something strange occurred, though. Indians line drives became outs. Lofton hammered a rocket directly to right fielder Justice to lead off the first, Omar Vizquel lined out to second, and in the second, Herbert Perry smashed a bullet at left fielder Polonia.
Something even more strange occurred: Avery, more than a week removed from his last start, found his bearings, holding the Indians hitless for the next three innings.
"He started throwing more changeups when he was ahead on the count," Hargrove said. "He started locating the ball better."
Hill held off Atlanta, as well, but the Braves broke the scoreless tie in the sixth with one swing of the bat. The bat of Ryan Klesko, who crushed a bases-empty homer. Cleveland's Albert Belle knotted the score again in the bottom of the sixth, when he drove a fastball into the Atlanta bullpen beyond the right-field fence.
But Avery pitched out of further trouble. "He was very gutsy tonight," Cox said.
The Atlanta manager met him at the top of the dugout step after the sixth with a handshake and a hook, telling him the bullpen would take it the rest of the way.
They did so. And now the Braves' master plan is for Maddux to take it from here.
Cleveland Indians vs. Atlanta Braves
Last night: Braves, 5-2
Series: Braves lead 3-1
Game 5: Tonight, 8:20, Jacobs Field, Cleveland, chs. 2, 7
Starters: Braves' Greg Maddux (22-2, 1.72) vs. Indians' Orel Hershiser (19-7, 3.56)
Note: Pitchers' records include postseason
Atlanta Braves vs. Cleveland Indians
Site Result/day, time, TV
Game 1 Braves, 3-2
Game 2 Braves, 4-3
Game 3 Indians, 7-6, 11 inn.
Game 4 Braves, 5-2
Game 5 Cleveland, Tonight 8:20, 2, 7
Game 6* Atlanta, Saturday 7:20, 11, 4
Game 7* Atlanta, Sunday 7:20, 2, 7
* -- If necessary