Clayton comes up tall with key catch at short Again during postseason, Card rises to occasion; NLCS notebook; AL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ST. LOUIS -- Since coming to the St. Louis Cardinals during the off-season, Royce Clayton has had his ups and downs while learning to be an effective leadoff hitter and taking over for a future Hall of Famer, Ozzie Smith, at shortstop.

But Clayton, 26, was a big reason the Cardinals swept the San Diego Padres in the National League Division Series, and he has been key in helping St. Louis take a surprising two-games-to-one lead over the Atlanta Braves in the NL Championship Series.

After getting two hits and getting on base three times in the Game 2 victory, Clayton had two more hits in yesterday's 3-2 win at Busch Stadium. Even more important was the defensive play that Clayton made in the first inning.

With one run in, two outs and runners at second and third, Clayton made a backhanded, over-the-head stab of a topspinning line drive by Jermaine Dye. It not only saved two runs, but it also might have saved the game and perhaps the season.

"It was really big," said Donovan Osborne, the starting and winning pitcher. "If he doesn't make it, it can really open up a big lead and blow the game open."

Said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones: "It was the biggest play of the game. If he doesn't make it, we're up 3-0, and who knows if Ron Gant comes up in the situations he did? I think it turned the whole game for them."

Clayton nearly jumped too high to catch the ball. Fighting the sun coming in from behind home plate and the shadows in the infield, Clayton thought the ball would rise as most line drives do. But this one dipped -- "like a knuckleball," he said -- and he ended up catching on the way down.

The way Clayton, who was acquired from the San Francisco Giants, has performed the past two games has made for some delicate platoon decisions for Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Though La Russa has a better handle on it now than he did earlier in the season, it's still tough when you're dealing with a player who is a big part of the team's future and another who is one of the most beloved players in a storied franchise's history.

"I've been dealing with the same question for the past seven months," La Russa said. "Ozzie doesn't want to play as a favor. He wants to go out there because he's the best and I'll just go with the guy who gives us the best chance to win."

Right now, that appears to be Clayton.

La Russa wouldn't say who's playing tonight, but Clayton will likely get the call against left-hander Denny Neagle with Smith, who went 0-for-4 in Game 1, going in Game 5 tomorrow night against Cy Young Award favorite John Smoltz.

Jordan playing hurt

Cardinals right fielder Brian Jordan said he thinks he's playing with a hairline fracture in his left hand.

Jordan hurt the hand in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. X-rays were negative at the time, and the former Milford Mill star doesn't want to go for a bone scan until after the season is over.

"If I know I have [a fracture], I might be thinking about it all the time," Jordan said.

Asked after yesterday's 0-for-4 performance whether the hand is bothering him, Jordan said: "It wasn't the hand. I just got too pumped up playing at home."

Pub Date: 10/13/96

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