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 ignored playoff pressure changed that history.
Steve Avery turned the Pittsburgh Pirates' bats into mush before 57,533 at Three Rivers Stadium, tossing a masterful 8 1/3 innings to give the Braves a 1-0 victory, their first National League Championship Series win in eight games.
The Pirates, who led the National League in runs, had just six hits and 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 and 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 and Curtis Wilkerson to save Avery's gem.
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, but a bad-hop hit by Mark Lemke in the sixth inning proved his #F undoing.
Lemke slapped a grounder to Buechele barely inside the third-base line. Just as Buechele raised his glove to make the play, the ball bounced over his left shoulder and rolled down the left-field line, scoring David Justice. Lemke was credited with a double.
Smith stranded nine base-runners in his seven innings, pitching resourcefully when he had to. But he has not beaten his former team since Aug. 14, 1990, when he topped Avery, 6-4.
The pitching matchup was an interesting blend of the veteran (Smith) against the youngster (Avery), Atlanta's ace through the stretch drive.
Smith grew up with the Braves and grew accustomed to finishing last in the National League West. "You could hear every word a heckler said," he said.
Now, Avery is playing before 50,000 screaming, tomahawk-wielding fans in Atlanta, but only after he experienced some of the same downbeats as Smith -- a 3-11 record season and a sixth-place team.
Avery said he learned a lot from that inauspicious start and it showed last night when he caught three straight Pirates looking at third strikes after walking the first man he faced.
Obviously, he wasn't feeling the pressure.
"Those Dodger games had this kind of atmosphere," he said, referring to his back-to-back victories in the showdown series last month. "Every game has been so big for us lately that if you can't concentrate in front of 50,000 fans and on national TV, then you can't do it anywhere."
Smith lost twice in the 1990 NLCS to the Reds, once in relief, and had serious problems with his former team this season, going 0-2 with an 8.59 ERA and allowing 15 hits in 7 1/3 innings.
"The bottom line is that I didn't have my good stuff," said Smith. "For some reason when we played the Braves this year they basically had big innings against us. We're going to have to concentrate on not letting them have that big inning."
The Braves had a big chance in the second, loading the bases on consecutive singles by Brian Hunter, Greg Olson and Mark Lemke but Smith stiffened.
Rafael Belliard forced Hunter at the plate, hitting a first-pitch chopper to third, Avery struck out and Lonnie Smith grounded out to Jay Bell.
It was indicative of how well Smith has pitched at home where he is 17-5 with a 2.45 ERA as a Pirate.
Manager Jim Leyland purposely arranged his pitching rotation so Smith would get two starts at Three Rivers. "Obviously, I'd rather pitch here," said Smith.
But he had drawn a tough customer in Avery, 5-0 with a 2.14 ERA in his last eight regular-season starts. He had not lost since Aug. 25.
And Avery proved it, capturing a 1-0 lead after six innings with the Braves' run scoring on a misread chopper by Pirate third baseman Steve Buechele.
The run came in the sixth on a leadoff single by David Justice, an advancing grounder by Greg Olson and Mark Lemke's high chopper that flicked off Buechele's glove and into left field for what was scored a double.
Justice was runner to third on the play with two outs and Buechele might have been distracted, b ut he did not appear screened.
The Pirates had only two singles off Avery, one by Barry Bonds in the second ining that caromed off the pitcher's leg. Bonds eventually stole second and third, but they couldn't get him home.
Jose Lind looped a single to left in the fifth with two out but Smith forced him to end the inning.
By this time, Avery was looking unbeatable with nine strikeouts and four 1-2-3 innings. He was the youngest starter in an LCS game since Kansas City's Bret Saberhagen in 1984 and the youngest in the National League since Los Angeles' Fernando Valenzuela in 1981.