NEW YORK -- Thousands of raucous New York Mets fans poured into Shea Stadium with their placards and their insults last night, hoping to rattle the Atlanta Braves and help the "Amazin's" fight their way back into the National League Championship Series.
If only the Mets had brought along something to hit with, it might have worked, but unflappable Braves starter Tom Glavine pitched seven shutout innings and the Braves parlayed an unearned run into a 1-0 victory that left them one victory away from their fifth World Series this decade.
For the sellout crowd of 55,911, however, the unkindest cut of all came in the ninth inning, when designated New York villain John Rocker retired three straight batters with the tying run on base to push the Mets to the threshold of an embarrassing four-game sweep. It could be game, set and match tonight when clutch postseason veteran John Smoltz faces Rick Reed.
Rocker inflamed the passions of the Mets faithful earlier this week when he referred to the most vocal fans as "a tired act" and rubbed in the fact that the Braves had won 20 of the previous 26 meetings between the two National League East rivals. Make that 21 out of 27.
The brash reliever was booed heavily during pre-game introductions and Major League Baseball security officials asked the New York Police Department to assign extra security around the Braves' bullpen, but it was Rocker who again had the last laugh.
Mets outfielder Benny Agbayani reached first on an error by shortstop Walt Weiss to lead off the ninth, but Rocker blew away pinch hitter Todd Pratt, retired rookie Melvin Mora on a long fly ball and got Rey Ordonez to tap softly into a force at second for his second save of the series.
"He has created some controversy," said Glavine, "but he has talked the talk and walked the walk. Most of us like to keep our thoughts to ourselves and just play the game, but that seems to motivate him."
"I don't regret anything I said," said Rocker, who lingered on the field for interviews as a handful of fans shouted obscenities from behind a line of police. "I'm probably a little more arrogant at times than I should be, but I enjoy getting in these people's heads."
Of course, Rocker isn't the only Braves player who wants to put the Mets in their place. The rivalry that has developed with the Mets is more than enough motivation for the Braves to try to close out the series tonight, but Glavine insists that there is no lack of respect between the clubs.
"Just beating them is going to be good enough," Glavine said. "We obviously have the opportunity to go out and win tomorrow, but I think that our approach will be the same. We anticipate a close game. We know they have a great team. We've developed a good rivalry with these guys. It's kind of taken on a life of its own this year. It's been fun."
It might not have been such a tense ballgame last night if the Braves had taken a more measured approach on the base paths, but they forced the action and paid for it almost every time.
They took advantage of first-inning throwing errors by Mets starter Al Leiter and catcher Mike Piazza to turn a leadoff walk into the only run of the game -- the Mets choosing a bad time to make two errors in the same inning for the first time all year.
The Braves continued to run the bases aggressively, but succeeded only in running themselves out of several scoring opportunities in the early innings.
Second baseman Bret Boone set the tone later in the first, when he tried to score the second run on a shallow fly ball to center field. Mora fired a strike to the plate and Boone was out easily -- though he put a dent in Piazza in a violent crash at home plate.
Piazza was thrown back so hard that he suffered a mild concussion, but he remained in the game and contributed two singles in four at-bats. He would get dinged up several more times, but hung in until the end.
The Braves wasted another opportunity in the second inning, after Andruw Jones reached on a wild-pitch third strike and Eddie Perez followed with an infield single. Leiter courted disaster when he fell behind 3-0 in the count to Brian Hunter, but got out of trouble when Jones strayed off second base and Hunter lined into a double play.
Three times in the first five innings, the Braves lost the leadoff hitter at second base. Chipper Jones, serenaded with a chant of "Lar-ry, Lar-ry," his given name, led off the fourth with a line drive toward the left-field corner and was gunned down by Rickey Henderson. Perez led off the fifth inning with another sharp single down the line and also tried to test Henderson's suspect throwing arm. The result was the same, Henderson tying an NLCS record.
Leiter might have been on the ropes on any of those occasions, but gained momentum and took a strong performance through seven innings. He might have gone longer, but manager Bobby Valentine couldn't allow him to bat in the bottom of the seventh with the Braves still holding that 1-0 lead.
"You'd like to have more runs, even with Tommy pitching," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "You want to get more than one, especially with Leiter matching him pitch for pitch."
It wasn't particularly artistic, but Leiter gave up just three hits -- all the Braves had on the night -- and did not allow an earned run in his second strong appearance of this postseason. He worked into the eighth inning and allowed three runs and three hits against Arizona in the Division Series after throwing a two-hit shutout in the regular-season wild-card playoff against the Cincinnati Reds.
He couldn't curse the fates, since his throwing error helped the Braves score the unearned run in the first, but he would have had to do something with the bat to put himself in position to get a win.
"He was upset after the first inning," said Valentine, "but [pitching coach] Dave Wallace talked to him and he got a lot of pats on the butt and he might have pitched as well as anybody in the series."
Glavine allowed at least one runner to reach base in each of the first seven innings, but he never seemed to be in serious trouble. Both times that the Mets had more than one runner on, Glavine found refuge at the bottom of the New York batting order. He got Leiter to swing at ball four to strand runners at first and third in the second.
The veteran lefty went 14-11 this year, not a great season by his lofty standards, but he pitched well in the Division Series and looked like his old self in his 24th career postseason start last night.
"I had an off year," Glavine said, "but you keep plugging away and hoping that when the stretch drive comes, you can be a factor. I feel I've been able to do that."
AL Championship Series
New York (Clemens 14-10) at Boston, (P.Martinez 23-4), 4 p.m., chs. 45, 5
NL Championship Series
Atlanta (Smoltz 11-8) at New York (Reed 11-5), 7: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4