ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves still have a few more chances to make the argument that they are the "Team of the '90s," but there is no question who is the team of the moment.
The New York Yankees waited patiently for an opening against surprise starter Greg Maddux last night, then scratched out four runs in the eighth inning to score a 4-1 comeback victory in the opening game of the 95th World Series.
Right fielder Paul O'Neill bounced a single through a drawn-up Braves infield to bring home two runs and help emerging Cuban superstar Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez steal the home-field advantage away from the Braves before a sellout crowd of 51,342 at Turner Field.
The Braves might as well have been swinging those foam rubber tomahawks that have become de riguer for Atlanta baseball fans the way Hernandez dominated the game for seven innings. He made one mistake -- a fat pitch that Chipper Jones blasted into the right-field bleachers in the fourth inning -- but that was the only hit the Braves managed in Hernandez's seven stifling innings.
Maddux made it hold up until the Yankees took advantage of some more questionable strategy by Braves manager Bobby Cox in the eighth to hand Hernandez his fifth career postseason victory without a defeat.
The eighth-inning rally hinged on two decisions that Cox would come to regret. He sent Brian Hunter into the game as a defensive replacement for first baseman Ryan Klesko, and Hunter became the first player at that position to make two errors in the same inning in a World Series game since Joe Torre's brother Frank did it playing for the Milwaukee Braves in the 1958 Fall Classic against -- you guessed it -- the Yankees.
Cue the "Twilight Zone" theme.
Cox, whose decision to substitute Ozzie Guillen for regular shortstop Walt Weiss became a huge issue in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, also put himself under a microscope when he chose to play the infield up with the bases loaded and the game tied.
O'Neill's bouncer might have been a double-play ball if the infield had been playing at normal depth, and the Yankees might have scored just two runs in the inning instead of four. But that became academic when closer Mariano Rivera worked out of trouble in the ninth to record his fifth save of this postseason and complete a combined two-hitter.
Maddux didn't know he was starting Game 1 until late Friday, when scheduled starter Tom Glavine fell ill with severe flu symptoms, but for seven innings, the switch looked like a blessing in disguise.
The four-time Cy Young Award winner came back on five days' rest after a strong performance against the New York Mets in last weekend's marathon playoff game at Shea Stadium and turned in another performance consistent with his stature as one of the best pitchers in the sport.
He carried a shutout into the eighth inning, giving up just three singles and working with a runner in scoring position just twice before the Yankees rose up and knocked him off the mound.
"It's not about pitching good, it's about winning," Maddux said. "Tonight I pitched good enough to lose. That's about what happened."
Still, Maddux was very, very good, even in defeat, but he met more than his match against "El Duque," who turned in another outstanding postseason performance and further established himself as the new ace of the Yankees' pitching staff.
OK, so Hernandez was the first to blink when he gave up a bleacher shot to Jones in the fourth inning, but that was the only effective swing the Braves took against him in seven innings of work.
Hernandez struck out the side in the first inning and had whiffed eight of the first 11 batters he faced when Jones launched his first home run since Sept. 23. He settled right back down and retired the next eight batters, pushing his strikeout total into double digits when he got Maddux on strikes to open the sixth.
"He continues to make you shake your head," said Torre. "He was sharp right from the get-go. You never know what to expect, but he took control early. Maddux was great, too. It was one of those [matchups] that you anticipate and they lived up to it."
In just two seasons in the major leagues, Hernandez already is establishing himself as one of the best postseason pitchers of his time. He entered the game with a 4-0 record in five career starts in the playoffs and World Series, but that's not the half of it. He gave up just the one run in seven innings and his ERA rose to 1.02.
"I can't say it was the best game I've thrown," Hernandez said through an interpreter, "but there are some games that make you happy and make your teammates happy, and that was one of them."
If anyone was going to get to him, it figured to be the Braves, who hammered four home runs against him in what may have been his worst regular-season start on July 16.
Instead, he left the game trailing 1-0 and the Yankees finally staged the rally against Maddux in the eighth inning to put him in a position to get the victory.
Scott Brosius led off that inning with his third hit of the game and Darryl Strawberry -- pinch hitting for Hernandez -- walked on a couple of borderline pitches. Chuck Knoblauch followed with a perfect bunt between the mound and first base and Hunter juggled it for an error, setting up a game-tying single by Derek Jeter that pushed Maddux out of the game.
"I made up my mind that I wasn't going to talk about the umpires in this series," Cox said. "But, you know, close, close pitches will determine the game, one way or the other."
Cox defended his decision to put Hunter into the game, even though he would also make a throwing error later in the inning.
"Brian is an excellent first baseman," Cox said. "He's very quick. That's probably why he got fouled up on it. The bunt was right between them [Hunter and Maddux]. He still could have gotten one out, but he dropped the ball."
Outspoken reliever John Rocker tried to stop the rally, but instead gave up the single to O'Neill that again called Cox's strategy into question.
The ball would not have gotten through the infield at normal depth. Instead, the Yankees scored two runs and Hunter made his second error of the inning when he bounced the cutoff throw to third base -- allowing O'Neill to get into scoring position.
The Yankees added one more run when Rocker walked pinch hitter Jim Leyritz on a borderline breaking ball with two outs and positioned themselves to deliver a devastating blow to the Braves if they can win tonight and sweep the first two games at Turner Field.
Atlanta vs. New York Yankees Yankees lead series, 1-0
Last night--Yankees 4, Braves 1
Today--at Atlanta, 8: 05 New York (Cone 12-9) vs. Atlanta (Millwood 18-7), chs. 11, 4 Tuesday--at Yankees, 8: 20
Wed.--at Yankees, 8: 20
*Thurs.--at Yankees, 8: 20
*Saturday--at Atlanta, 8: 05
*Oct. 31--at Atlanta, 8: 05
The Yankees winning Game 1 is a good omen for their chances. Six of eight world champions in the 1990s won the first game of the World Series. A look:
Yr. 1st Game Series Res.
90 Cin. 7, Oak. 0 Cin. in 4 gms
91 Min. 5, Atl. 2 Min. in 7 gms
92 Atl. 3, Tor. 1 Tor. in 6 gms
93 Tor. 8, Phl. 5 Tor. in 6 gms
95 Atl. 3, Cle. 2 Atl. in 6 gms
96 Atl. 12, N.Y. 1 N.Y. in 6 gms
97 Fla. 7, Cle. 4 Fla. in 7 gms
98 N.Y. 9, S.D. 6 N.Y. in 4 gms