Avery, freak hit by Braves deal Pirates 1-0 loss

October 11, 1991|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- Since the league championship series format was instituted in 1969, the Atlanta Braves never had won a game.

Last night, an unintimidated youngster who scoffed at playoff pressure changed that history of futility.

Steve Avery turned the Pittsburgh Pirates' bats into mush before a record 57,533 at Three Rivers Stadium, tossing a masterful six-hitter over 8 1/3 innings to give the Braves their first NL playoff victory in eight starts, 1-0.

The Pirates, who led the National League in runs, did not manage an extra-base hit until the ninth inning, had only three runners in scoring position and threatened seriously just three times against Avery.

Alejandro Pena relieved with one out in the ninth to squelch the final jam with Bobby Bonilla on second base via a leadoff double. He uncorked a wild pitch to send Bonilla to third with one out, but retired Steve Buechele on a tap to the mound and struck out pinch hitter Curtis Wilkerson to save Avery's gem.

"It was just too much Steve Avery," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "He was on top of his game with all three pitches and threw strikes."

Cox said he has "never known Avery to be nervous. His composure is probably as good as anybody in the National League, and he's only 21 years old. It's an amazing story."

"He's the most mature 21-year-old I've ever seen," said catcher Greg Olson. "Once he gets in the groove you let him keep throwing the ball."

Olson said Avery follows a routine. He takes a breath, blows it out. "Then his eyes get big, I put down the sign and he throws the ball. So far nothing has disturbed him."

The outcome evens the series at one victory apiece with resumption scheduled tomorrow afternoon at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Pittsburgh starter Zane Smith was almost as proficient as Avery, but a Mark Lemke grounder that took a bad hop, skipped over Buechele's left shoulder and rolled down the left-field line in the sixth inning proved his undoing.

Smith stranded nine runners in his seven innings, pitching resourcefully when he had to. But he lost at home for only the fourth time all season and sixth in his two seasons as a Pirate.

The only run Avery needed came when David Justice singled leading off the sixth, went to second on a ground ball and then scored on Lemke's two-out, bad-hop double.

"I didn't think he had a play at all at first base," said Pirates manager Jim Leyland. "So, it looked like he was trying to tag the guy [Justice] coming in. It was just a tough play."

The ball scooted down the line and Justice raced home to provide the margin for Avery, the youngest playoff starter since Bret Saberhagen of the Kansas City Royals in 1984 and the youngest in the National League since Fernando Valenzuela of Los Angeles in 1981.

Atlanta threatened repeatedly against ex-teammate Smith, but he squelched the uprisings with aplomb, particularly in the third inning when the Braves couldn't score after loading the bases with none out.

"Zane dodged some bullets all night," said Leyland. "But that's the type of pitcher he is. He gives up hits, but is capable of throwing the double play ball to get out of it."

Avery had Barry Bonds on third in the second inning and pitched free and then had two on with two out in the eighth when Lemke flagging down Jay Bell's grounder up the middle and prevented Gary Redus from passing third base.

"Those Dodger games had this kind of atmosphere," said Avery, referring to his back-to-back September victories in the showdowns against Los Angeles. "Every game has been so big for us lately that if you can't concentrate in front of 50,000 fans and national TV, you can't do it anywhere."

Leyland said the Pirates "could have played for two more hours and probably not scored tonight. I don't know of any team I've seen that could have done much with Avery. he was pretty much flawless."

The split -- breaking a 10-game postseason drought for the Braves franchise -- changes the outlook of the series.

"This sets things up for our fans," said Cox. "I think the reception back home is going to be real good. There's going to be lots of energy."

Olson said: "We had to come out of here 1-1. We should have scored more runs tonight, but we didn't. With Steve on the mound, we didn't need any more."

Avery, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1988 free-agent draft, has not lost a game since Aug. 25.

Pirates-Braves scoring

Braves sixth: Justice singled to left. Hunter struck out. Olson grounded out to third baseman Buechele, Justice to second. Lemke doubled down the left-field line, Justice scored. Belliard intentionally walked. Avery flied out to center fielder Van Slyke. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Braves 1, Pirates 0.

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