Cards have lead, but not odds Even with 3-2 edge, St. Louis no sure bet to split in Atlanta; NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- The St. Louis Cardinals need to beat the Atlanta Braves once in the next two nights to earn their first trip to the World Series since 1987, which is exactly what they did here last week in splitting the first two games of the National League Championship Series.

The Cardinals also need to beat either four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux or 1995 World Series MVP Tom Glavine, something St. Louis did in successive games last week to help it build a three games-to-one lead in this best-of-seven series. So why do we get the feeling that the Braves are suddenly the favorites?

"They're still in the driver's seat," Glavine said in St. Louis on Monday night, "but this game gave us a lot of momentum."

This game was a record-shattering 14-0 shutout by the defending World Series champions at Busch Stadium. The most one-sided victory in the history of the League Championship Series also saw the Braves equal the record for most runs, break the record for most hits (22) and bring the Cardinals free-falling back to reality.

Now St. Louis will have to show its resilience tonight in Game 6 against the most dominating pitcher this decade, but one who has displayed a sudden vulnerability both during a 15-11 regular season and in Game 2, when he gave up five runs and yielded his second League Championship Series grand slam in the seventh inning of an 8-3 defeat.

Asked what the atmosphere will be like at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Maddux said, "It's going to be fun. When you get an opportunity to pitch in a game like this, it's a big rush."

Neither Maddux nor any of his teammates seem to be the least bit tight about knowing they are one defeat away from regular tee times. The offense that had stagnated for most of the first four games has been aroused. The starting pitching favors the Braves, too.

Despite losing Game 4, Atlanta's four-man rotation got a huge boost when left-hander Denny Neagle started because it allowed John Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine to all go on four days' rest while the Cardinals' starters have had to work on only three. Smoltz responded with a seven shutout innings, while Todd Stottlemyre didn't make it out of the second inning after giving up seven runs.

"I said all along that we had a big advantage going with four guys," said Smoltz, who has picked up in the postseason where he left off during his 24-8 regular season.

It has forced St. Louis manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan to decide between Game 3 starter Donovan Osborne and Alan Benes, a rookie who had a good second half for the Cardinals. Alan Benes, the younger brother of Cardinals ace Andy Benes, looked untouchable in one inning of relief.

La Russa said yesterday at a brief workout at Busch Stadium that he would wait to announce a starting pitcher, but St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan called Benes starting "a pretty strong scenario."

One Cardinal who wanted to remain anonymous told the Dallas Morning News, "I know who's starting. It's the big boy." Alan Benes stands 6 feet 5 and weighs 215 pounds. Osborne is 6-2, 195. Draw your own conclusions.

Osborne seemingly summed up the Cardinals' feelings about the Series in the quiet clubhouse Monday night. It wasn't so much that the Braves won and put the champagne celebration on hold, it was the crushing manner in which they pulled to within a game. "It's very stressful," said Osborne.

"But we've celebrated on the road in Pittsburgh [to clinch the Central Division title] and we celebrated in San Diego [to sweep the Padres in three in the National League Division Series]. Hopefully, we can celebrate in Atlanta. But we can't think about it. We just have to go out and play hard."

Said first baseman John Mabry of Warwick, Md.: "A loss is a loss, whether it's by one run or 14 runs. You have to be able to get over it and today is over. [Winning one of two] is not impossible. We've done it before."

But can the Cardinals do it again? Taking a split in the first two games of a best-of-seven series is much different than finishing the job. Beating Maddux and Glavine on successive nights has been done only three times this year. The first two times, Maddux came back to win his next start while Glavine lost his next time out.

"I like our chances," said Maddux.

So do a lot of people.

NLCS schedule

Atlanta vs. St. Louis

(Cardinals lead series 3-2)

(Best of seven; games on Ch. 45)

Game 1: Atlanta 4, St. Louis 2

Game 2: St. Louis 8, Atlanta 3

Game 3: St. Louis 3, Atlanta 2

Game 4: St. Louis 4, Atlanta 3

Game 5: Atl. 14, St. Louis 0

Today: at Atlanta, 8: 11

Tomorrow: at Atlanta, 8: 11*

Note: all times are p.m.

! * -- if necessary

Pub Date: 10/16/96

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