MIAMI -- The Florida Marlins had the best home record in the major leagues this season, and last night they showed why.
They overcame one of the game's best postseason pitchers, a disputed call that led them to play the game under protest and the emotional impact of the loss of starting pitcher Alex Fernandez to a torn rotator cuff in beating the Atlanta Braves, 5-2.
In the process, the Marlins took a 2-1 lead in games over the Braves, the defending National League champions, before a Marlins record crowd of 53,857 at Pro Player Stadium.
After John Smoltz (10-2 in the postseason before the game) looked invincible early, Florida batted around in the sixth inning to score four runs, the final three on Charles Johnson's bases-loaded double.
That finished Smoltz, who left for a pinch hitter in the seventh, having allowed five earned runs. Braves starters had given up only one earned run in their previous 28 NLCS innings.
Glen Burnie High School graduate Tony Saunders gave the Marlins 5 1/3 decent innings. Then one of baseball's top bullpens took over to shut down the Braves the rest of the way.
"Tonight, I was behind a lot 2-0 and 3-1, but I got out of those situations. I made pitches when I needed to," Saunders said.
The big inning started with a one-out double by Edgar Renteria. Gary Sheffield, who had homered in his previous at-bat, then walked as Smoltz worked carefully.
After Bobby Bonilla flied out, the inning's key play occurred when Darren Daulton smacked a hard liner almost directly at Atlanta right fielder Andruw Jones.
The ball appeared to freeze Jones, then soared over the leaping fielder for a run-scoring double. After Devon White walked, Johnson's shot to deep left-center eluded Ryan Klesko's diving attempt, and all of the runners scored.
"I was able to get a slider up in the zone," said Johnson. "I kind of reached out and flicked it and it found a hole out there."
Johnson had struck out in his first two-at bats against Smoltz and considered he might be in for a long night.
"He got me, but Jim Eisenreich told me to relax a little bit and just go up there and see the ball," said Johnson. "Smoltz has been tough. He's one of the best pitchers in the game."
Livan Hernandez extracted Saunders from his final jam with minimal damage, and Dennis Cook pitched a flawless eighth before Robb Nen closed Florida's 55th home triumph (including three in the postseason).
The Marlins have now beaten Atlanta in 10 of 15 meetings this season.
Saunders managed to pitch himself out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the fourth, giving up only one run on Fred McGriff's sacrifice fly.
"Getting out of there with only one run, that hurt a little bit," said Braves manager Bobby Cox.
"That was huge for the team," Saunders said. "I just told myself to try to get out of there with one and not try to do too much."
ZTC Marlins manager Jim Leyland said the protest is academic. "Obviously, nothing is going to happen now because we won," he said.
The protest came on a controversial play at second base in the fourth as the Braves took their 1-0 lead. Kenny Lofton scored the run on Fred McGriff's sacrifice fly with the bases loaded after Lofton was re-awarded second by the umpires.
With a 3-2 count on Jeff Blauser, Lofton took off from first and apparently was tagged out by Craig Counsell. However, Blauser had walked, which automatically awarded Lofton the base.
But Lofton strayed off -- apparently thinking he had been thrown out -- and Counsell applied the tag. Umpire Eric Gregg allowed Lofton to return safely, ostensibly because time had been called.
The Marlins then had crew chief Bruce Froemming talking to league president Leonard Coleman. They were telling Coleman that they were playing the game under protest.
Coleman said the umpires "ruled that it was umpire error that the runner had been inappropriately called out when it was ball four, and therefore placed him on the appropriate base."
The inning continued, with Counsell committing an error when he failed to catch the throw on Chipper Jones' bunt attempt. That loaded the bases for McGriff.
Saunders wriggled out of the inning without further damage by getting Javy Lopez on a short fly ball and Ryan Klesko on a pop-up.
Florida tied the game in the bottom of the fourth on Gary Sheffield's first LCS homer.
Pub Date: 10/11/97