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 scored four times 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 that 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 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 bottom of 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 night, 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 seventh 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 in the eighth.
"There really wasn't a lot of frustration because we have so much respect for Greg," said Yankees manager Joe Torre, "but we got an opening and we were able to take advantage of it."
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 he 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 in order, 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, the Cuban right-hander 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.
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 a rally against Maddux in the eighth inning to put him in a position to get the victory.
Scott Brosius led off that inning with a single to left and Darryl Strawberry -- pinch hitting for Hernandez -- walked. Chuck Knoblauch followed with a sacrifice bunt that was juggled by first baseman Brian Hunter for an error and Derek Jeter tied the game with a base hit to left that pushed Maddux out of the game.
Outspoken reliever John Rocker tried to stop the rally, but instead gave up a single to O'Neill.
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