CLEVELAND -- The Atlanta Braves have been called the Buffalo Bills of baseball, because of their repeated failures in the postseason. Not fair. The Bills never got this close to a title.
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 their first championship since 1957 tonight in Game 5.
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.
Steve Avery pitched six erratic but effective innings for the Braves last night, and Luis Polonia and David Justice contributed the key hits.
"It felt really good because we needed that because we know what kind of team Cleveland has," Justice said of the three-run rally. "The more runs we get ahead of them, the better for us."
And indeed, the Indians made a belated comeback try in the ninth, with a leadoff home run by Manny Ramirez and a double by Paul Sorrento off weary closer Mark Wohlers, who pitched 2 2/3 innings the night before. But Pedro Borbon Jr. struck out Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar and retired Kenny Lofton on a liner to right to seal the victory.
Following the trend that is making this Series memorable, the Braves and Indians played close into the late innings again last night. One run for Atlanta, one for Cleveland as the seventh inning began.
With one out, however, Atlanta center fielder Marquis Grissom walked. Perhaps it was the fear of Grissom stealing second that compelled Hill to throw a fastball. Perhaps working from the stretch bothered him. But Hill threw a high fastball, nowhere close to where catcher Alomar set up, and Polonia pulled it
between right fielder Ramirez and center fielder Lofton, to the wall. Turn and burn, in major-league parlance.
Grissom scored standing, and Polonia stood at second base and clapped for himself.
Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove went to his bullpen, calling on left-hander Paul Assenmacher, who intentionally walked Chipper Jones to pitch to Fred McGriff -- 1-for-12 lifetime against Assenmacher.
McGriff struck out, but before he did, both runners advanced on a passed ball by Alomar. Then, on a 1-2 pitch, David Justice singled up the middle and both runners scampered home. If the Braves wrap up the Series tonight, Justice's hit will be remembered as the crushing blow to Cleveland's championship dreams.
Avery pitched exceptionally well against Cincinnati in the National League Championship Series, and as the World Series began, Braves manager Bobby Cox leaned heavily toward starting him in Game 4. That would allow Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to throw with a full complement of rest.
Maddux needed just 95 pitches in a complete-game victory over the Indians in Game 1, and Cox was intrigued by the idea of starting Maddux in Game 4 and again in Game 7, if necessary.
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.
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 early, 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. Cleveland 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.
Hill was pitching a different kind of game. The Braves constantly threatened, but Hill maintained control, getting outs when he needed them, pitching carefully. He pitched around McGriff twice with a runner on third and two outs -- in the first and third innings -- to face Justice, who began the game with an .040 lifetime average (1-for-25) against Hill. Justice grounded out both times.
Atlanta had runners in scoring position in four of the first five innings, and didn't score.
The Braves broke through in the sixth with one swing of the bat. Ryan Klesko's bat. Klesko had taken a 1-1 pitch from Hill and home plate umpire John Hirschbeck called it a strike. Klesko backed out of the box and barked at the ump, furious. He stepped back in and smacked an outside fastball into the right-field seats.
Avery's alter ego, the one who had struggled through the first two innings, returned in the bottom of the sixth and barely survived the inning. As quickly as he had gained his control for the third, he lost it in the sixth, walking Vizquel to start the frame.
Carlos Baerga hit into a 5-4-3 double play, a development that would be Avery's saving grace in the inning (he could offer thanks to Vizquel, who had a great shot to take out Mark Lemke at second and failed).
Belle homered into the Braves' bullpen, driving a low fastball, to tie the game at 1-1. Avery walked Eddie Murray, and after losing his balance and balking, he intentionally walked Manny Ramirez to pitch to Perry -- who struck out. Cox was waiting for Avery at the top step of the dugout 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