ST. LOUIS -- When Ron Gant broke his leg in a dirt-bike accident before the 1994 season, he couldn't make his employers, the Atlanta Braves, pay more than one-sixth of his $5.5 million contract. Eventually, he was released and, for a long time, bitter at what he viewed as professional abandonment.
Last year, as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, Gant had a chance to make the Braves pay for letting him go. But all he could manage were three singles in 16 at-bats in the National League Championship Series that resulted in a four-game sweep by the soon-to-be World Series champion Braves.
"When I see those guys, I want to beat them," Gant said. "I sometimes tried too hard, like what happened last year. I tried to hit a home run every time up. This year I've had to calm myself down. When I do that and just try to get hits, things like today happen."
What happened yesterday in Game 3 of this year's NLCS was sweet revenge. After helping the St. Louis Cardinals pull even with the Braves in Game 2 by getting three hits, Gant made Atlanta pay dearly at Busch Stadium.
Fully recovered from the injury that sidelined him for the 1994 season but not quite over the hurt from the way he felt he was treated by the Braves, Gant crushed two home runs off Tom Glavine, last year's World Series Most Valuable Player, to lead the upstart Cardinals to a 3-2 victory before a raucous, sellout crowd of 56,769.
The victory was the first for the Cardinals on their home field over the Braves after being swept six straight during the regular season and, more importantly, it puts St. Louis ahead two games to one in this best-of-seven series that resumes tonight at Busch. It also marks the first time in their run of five straight postseason appearances that the Braves trail at this stage of the League Championship Series.
"They have the momentum now, and we have to get it back," said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones.
The momentum that started to build with Gary Gaetti's seventh-inning grand slam off four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux on Thursday night in Atlanta continued with the first of Gant's home runs off Glavine. It came in the first inning, a two-run shot into the left-field bullpen that erased a 1-0 Atlanta lead.
It built even more in the sixth, when Gant led off by sending a Glavine fastball 420 feet into the bushes in straightaway center field. The Braves threatened once, by loading the bases with none out in the eighth, but St. Louis starter Donovan Osborne and reliever Mark Petkovsek got out of it by giving up only one run.
"The Braves' pitchers put the ball around the plate all the time, and our guys are very aggressive," said Osborne, who then watched the team's two 42-year-old relievers, Rick Honeycutt and Dennis Eckersley, retire Atlanta on five pitches in the ninth. "Today is a good example of our good hitters hitting their good pitching."
Said Glavine: "Sometimes, you have to tip your hat to the other guy. It's not always a matter of a pitcher making a mistake. Sometimes, the other guy beats you at your game. That's what Ron did today."
Gant's decision last month to close his stance has enabled him to cover more of the plate -- both home runs off Glavine came on pitches away -- and he also has benefited from being familiar with his former teammates. He has hit nine home runs, six this season, with 23 RBIs against the Braves since leaving Atlanta.
But emotion still plays a large part in his success -- and failure -- against the Braves. Though he is still friends with many players on the current roster and still lives in Atlanta during the off-season, there is a part of Gant that is bitter at being released.
"I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't hurt," said Gant, who became the first player to hit two homers in a League Championship Series game since former teammate David Justice did it for the Braves against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1992. "I'm not going to lie about the situation there. It hurt me very deeply, and I felt it a lot. However, I put those feelings behind me. I'm a smarter hitter now."
Some of his current teammates aren't sure Gant is over the hurt. They see a difference in him when he plays against the Braves compared with other teams. Those feelings are intensified now that a World Series is at stake. The Cardinals are two games away from their first trip since 1987.
"All of us want to win," said right fielder Brian Jordan. "But nobody wants to beat the Braves more than Ron. It's awesome to see him come through the way he did today."
Since going 0-for-4 in Game 1, Gant is 5-for-9 with three extra-base hits, four RBIs and three runs. After not quite justifying the five-year, $25 million contract he signed last winter -- Gant had 30 home runs and 82 RBIs but hit only .246 and struck out 98 times -- the 31-year-old left fielder is paying off.
And, in the case of the Braves, paying back.
Atlanta vs. St. Louis
(Cardinals lead series 2-1)
(Best of seven; games on Ch. 45)
Game 1: Atlanta 4, St. Louis 2
Game 2: St. Louis 8, Atlanta 3
Yesterday: St. Louis 3, Atlanta 2
Tonight: at St. Louis, 7: 30
Tomorrow: at St. Louis, 7: 09
Wednesday: at Atlanta, 4: 15*
Thursday: at Atlanta, 8: 11*
Note: all game times are p.m.
* -- if necessary
Pub Date: 10/13/96