ATLANTA -- The magical October in Minneapolis seems a lifetime ago for Gary Gaetti. It was nine years, three teams, one league and countless injuries removed from last night. But Tony La Russa saw enough in the now 38-year-old third baseman when they were both in the American League the past couple of seasons to bring Gaetti with him to St. Louis this year. La Russa saw some of the same qualities this year with the Cardinals.
Though he's still playing hurt -- this time with a sore right heel -- Gaetti turned back the clock with a single swing. It came against four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, a first-pitch slider in the seventh inning of a one-run game. It came with the bases loaded and when the ball landed, some 400 feet away in the left-field bleachers at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, it propeled the Cardinals to an 8-3 victory.
It silenced an announced sellout crowd of 52,067, sending many of them to their cars and Maddux to the showers. It drew the long-shot Cardinals even with the defending world champions at one game each going into Game 3 tomorrow in St. Louis. And, most importantly, it made the Braves finally seem vulnerable.
It was the first postseason loss at home for the Braves in seven games, and only their fourth overall in the last 19 postseason games. Not that Atlanta is in terrible shape, with a 6-0 record this year at Busch Stadium and Tom Glavine, last year's World Series MVP, up next in the rotation. All because of some early aggressiveness by the Cardinals and some late heroics by Gaetti.
After seeing a 3-0 lead through three innings disappear by the jTC
end of the sixth, after taking a 4-3 lead with the help of an Atlanta error in the seventh, it was left up to Gaetti. The home run, which came after Maddux had intentionally walked Brian Jordan, was the fifth in the postseason for Gaetti, his second game-winner this year.
"I swung hard in case I hit it," said Gaetti. "I wasn't going to get into a guessing game with that guy. He had made me look foolish on my last at-bat. I got a good pitch and I hit it."
Said Maddux, "One more good pitch and I was out of the inning. I tried to throw a ball outside, and I thought he'd swing at the first pitch. Really good slider, huh? It never broke."
Cardinals starter Todd Stottlemyre had been in a similar situation in the previous inning. But after seeing the Braves tie the game at 3-3 on a single by Ryan Klesko, Stottlemyre got Jermaine Dye to pop out to second baseman Mike Gallego in shallow center field and then struck out pinch hitter Terry Pendleton.
"We got a big lift from Stottlemyre," said La Russa. "I thought it was one of the keys to the game. No doubt when Todd got out of all that potential damage with only one run, it was big."
Said shortstop Royce Clayton, who keyed all of the Cardinals outbursts by getting two hits and a walk from the leadoff spot. "We definitely came into this game thinking we had to win. We had a lot of guys come through."
None bigger than Gaetti. Though he had put together a solid first year in St. Louis, with 23 home runs, 80 RBIs and a .274 average as well as a three-run homer in Game 1 of the Division Series sweep of the San Diego Padres, Gaetti had struggled against Maddux in his first four at-bats. He never made it out of the infield.
To make it out of the park was something Gaetti didn't really expect.
"I just didn't want him to make me look silly," he said.
Gaetti didn't. With one swing, Gaetti's revived the memories of nearly a decade ago when he was the MVP of the 1987 American League Championship Series for the Twins, when he became the first player to hit home runs in his first two at-bats in a Championship Series. He also played a key role in Minnesota's hanky-waving run to its first World Series title, beating the team that now signs his paychecks.
If it seems a long time ago, it's because it was.
"I don't really remember a whole lot of that," he said.
Nine years, three teams, one league change and countless injuries can do that.
Atlanta vs. St. Louis
(Series tied 1-1) (Best of seven; games on Ch. 45)
Game 1: Atlanta 4, St. Louis 2
Yesterday: St. Louis 8, Atlanta 3
Tomorrow: Atl. at St. Louis, 4:15
Sunday: Atlanta at St. Louis, 7:30
Monday: Atlanta at St. Louis, 7:09
Wednesday: St. Louis at Atl., 4:15*
Thursday: St. Louis at Atl., 8: 11*
Note: all game times are p.m. * -- if necessary
Pub Date: 10/11/96