ATLANTA -- He took a mediocre postseason record and an ERA nearly twice his career average into Game 6 of the National League Championship Series last night at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He took the memories of his last start against the St. Louis Cardinals, including a hanging slider that wound up as a grand slam.
Then Greg Maddux remembered who he was.
A four-time Cy Young winner.
The best pitcher this decade.
In this case, Maddux proved to be the ultimate setup man last night. In a 3-1 victory over the Cardinals, he made certain there would be a Game 7 tonight and, quite possibly, another World Series for the Atlanta Braves on Saturday in New York.
"If you screw up, it's your last game," said Maddux, who scattered seven hits over 7 2/3 innings, struck out seven and walked none. "If you lose, you find a flight and go home. If you win, you go to New York."
Before a suddenly rejuvenated crowd of 52,067, Maddux was the kind of pitcher he had been for the final month of the regular season and for much of the past six years. He worked the corners of the plate and his opponent's collective psyche. He didn't go to a full count until the seventh inning and often needed one pitch to get an out.
Maddux tired with two out in the eighth, giving way to Mark Wohlers after consecutive base hits by Royce Clayton and Willie McGee. Wohlers immediately provided some tense moments by throwing a wild pitch that scored Clayton, but retired the next four hitters to secure the win.
The victory gave the defending champions a chance to become the ninth team to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the postseason and the first in an NLCS. Tom Glavine, last year's World Series MVP, will try to finish off the suddenly wingless Cardinals, who seem almost destined to add to their legacy by losing a 3-1 postseason lead for the third time.
"The reality of the situation is that regardless what happens, you know it's a great moment," said Cardinals third baseman Gary Gaetti, who seemed to be formulating his concession speech. "There are a lot of great things behind a Game 7. There's a lot of excitement. I feel like these guys want to enjoy the moment."
The Cardinals haven't enjoying much the past three days. Since taking a 3-1 advantage with Sunday's 4-3 comeback victory at Busch Stadium, the St. Louis offense has lost its aggressiveness and its pitching staff seems to be tiring. The Cardinals have scored one run in 18 innings, that on Wohlers' wild pitch.
Though rookie right-hander Alan Benes was certainly more effective than either his brother Andy was in Game 4 or Todd Stottlemyre was in Game 5, he gave Atlanta and Maddux enough to feel comfortable.
Benes gave Javier Lopez, a noted breaking-ball pitcher, just what he wanted on a 2-2 pitch that the Braves' catcher sent into the gap in right-center. It sent Fred McGriff to third and set up Atlanta's first run on a sacrifice fly by rookie Jermaine Dye. The Braves scored their second run after No. 8 hitter Jeff Blauser was hit with a pitch by Benes, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Maddux and scored on a single by Mark Lemke.
"He got a one-run lead and that seemed like was almost enough," said Gaetti, who had hit the grand slam off Maddux in Game 2. "There's such a fine line between when he's on and when he's off -- if he's ever off. But he was around the plate tonight and he was very tough."
Said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, "He and Javy [Lopez] did a great job. Greg was really on top of his game."
Cox was alluding to the job Lopez did in catching Maddux, something he doesn't do frequently and something that was called into question after last week's 8-3 defeat. But Cox could have been talking about the continued postseason hitting heroics of a player who seems to get hot in October.
Aside from Rafael Belliard, who drove in the insurance run in the eighth inning and is 2-for-2 in the series, Lopez is hitting a team-high .550. with 11 hits in 20 at-bats. He has 18 total bases, including an LCS record four doubles. This after coming to the park yesterday with the stomach flu and needing three bags of intravenous liquids just to play.
"I was feeling terrible this morning," Lopez said, "but now I am feeling much better."
The same can be said for the Braves.
As for the Cardinals, they seem to be preparing for the inevitable.
"You know I'm one of those who has been taught that you don't use the word no, not, don't," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "We're not going to talk about not making mistakes. We're going to talk about doing things right. Our club has achieved a lot, nothing has been easy and we have a great feeling about being in a tough situation. It wasn't easy to get three wins in this series, so we're playing the same club for the seventh time."
It's a different team, these Braves. With different fans. With a different pitcher in Maddux.
Atlanta vs. St. Louis
(Series tied 3-3)
(Best of seven;
all 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
Yesterday: Atl. 3, St. Louis 1
Today: at Atlanta, 8: 11 p.m.
Pub Date: 10/17/96