Avery calmly ties up Pirates and NL series

October 11, 1991|By Bill Plaschke | Bill Plaschke,Los Angeles Times

PITTSBURGH -- As he did three weeks ago before shutting out the Los Angeles Dodgers during the West Division championship race, Steve Avery prepared for yesterday's playoff game with the Pittsburgh Pirates by lying on the trainer's table and taking a nap.

Only this time, to see if he was really that calm, Atlanta Braves' teammate Mike Heath walked past and stuck a wet finger into his ear.

Avery did not move.

"We call it a Wet Willie," Avery said with a shrug.

Said Heath: "Just checking on the kid to see if he was relaxed. Yes, he was relaxed."

Wet Willie was the worst thing that happened to him all night.

Pitching like the veteran that he became while going 5-0 during the final six weeks of the season, Avery defied the Pirates and common sense by allowing six hits and only four balls out of the infield in 8 1/3 innings, leading the Braves to a 1-0 victory and a 1-1 tie in this best-of-seven series.

Before 57,533 at Three Rivers Stadium, Avery, the youngest player on either roster -- he is only 21 -- gave the Braves their first postseason victory in Atlanta history while proving that for a pitcher, age is all in your arm.

"He may be young enough to own a rattle," the Pirates' Andy Van Slyke said. "But he does not rattle."

Neither does Alejandro Pena. He recorded his 12th save in 12 save situations since joining the Braves by stranding Bobby Bonilla on third base in the ninth inning when Steve Buechele grounded out and Curtis Wilkerson took a called third strike.

By that time, Avery had worked out of jams in the seventh and eighth innings, stranding three runners.

And against Pirates starter Zane Smith, the Atlanta offense could not relax because its only run had come on a bad-hop double by Mark Lemke. His hit bounced past Buechele at third in the sixth inning to score David Justice.

So when Pena pounded his fist into his glove after the final out and danced toward Greg Olson, the Braves' catcher simply stood there and watched, as disbelieving as the Pirates.

"The last pitch of the game was the last pitch I could catch," Olson said. "I was absolutely mentally drained."

But his problems are nothing that a three-game series before thousands of war-painted fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium cannot fix. The Pirates were 0-6 there this season.

"Going back to the 'Chop Shop,' " Avery proclaimed, "this thing is going to get even more fun.

"I'm the youngest one out here," he said, "and if I'm not feeling pressure, I don't think anyone is. I'm having fun. There's no reason to be nervous now."

Said the Braves' Ron Gant: "The pressure is on the Pirates now."

Barry Bonds, who has one hit in six at-bats in this series, grounded into a double play and, in the ninth inning, popped out with Bonilla on second and none out.

Van Slyke, the hero of Game 1, struck out and grounded out when batting with runners on base.

"If we face him again in this series, I don't see it being much different from tonight," Van Slyke said. "For a kid just 21 years old, he was remarkable."

Avery, the youngest pitcher to start a playoff game in more than seven years, walked Gary Redus on five pitches to start the game, but then showed his stuff by striking out Jay Bell, Van Slyke and Bonilla on nine pitches.

"[Avery] was awesome," marveled Pirates manager Jim Leyland. "That's as fine a performance as I've seen all year. We could have played another two hours and probably not scored off him."

No Pirate hit the ball past an infielder until Jose Lind's single to left with two out in the fifth inning.

"When you get eight or nine guys in a row, you start to get a feeling," Avery said. "It's like, maybe you can close these guys out."

But first he needed a run, which he got in the sixth inning when the Braves took their first lead in 26 postseason innings dating back to 1982.

It happened after a single to left by Justice, who moved to second on a grounder by Olson. Lemke's hit bounced off the dirt on the second hop and flew wildly past Beuchele and into foul territory down the leftfield line, scoring Justice.

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