ATLANTA -- When the pinch-hits come as infrequently as they do for Mike LaValliere, they tend to be stored, like fine wine in a cellar, then savored.
LaValliere, Pittsburgh's short and stout catcher whose nickname Spanky," refers less to his ability to spank the ball to all fields than to his resemblance to the Little Rascals character of the same name, recalls that before today, the last time he can remember a pinch-hit was nearly a decade ago.
"I think it was 1982. I was in Hampton (Va.), playing for the Peninsula Pilots. I think it was 102 degrees that day," said LaValliere.
It wasn't nearly that hot early in the morning today at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but LaValliere's sense of timing was certainly cooking, as his single to right-center in the top of the 10th gave the Pirates a 3-2 win over Atlanta and tied the National League Championship Series at two games each.
"It's my first hit in the postseason and it came at a pretty good time," said LaValliere.
And how. The hit, on an 0-2 count with two out in the inning, not only got Pittsburgh back into the series after a humiliating 10-3 loss to the Braves, but ensured that the best-of-seven set will return to Three Rivers Stadium, regardless of the outcome of today's fifth game (Ch. 11, 3 p.m.).
That LaValliere was the hero of a game filled with its share of foul-up, bleeps and blunders, and took up the slack for the Pirates' star-laden, but recently punchless outfield, speaks nTC volumes for this hard-working, shot-and-a-beer supporting cast.
LaValliere, who has been largely shelved in this series, because Pirates manager Jim Leyland has a strict catching platoon with Don Slaught facing lefthanders, got the nod from Leyland when Atlanta manager Bobby Cox summoned righthander Mark Wohlers to pitch for lefty Kent Mercker in the 10th.
"I just had a feeling," said Leyland. "We know Wohlers is a hard thrower. We were thinking maybe he could get a stroke on the ball and get a base hit, and of course, that's what happened."
"Playing for Jim all year, he uses the entire bench," said LaValliere. "I know that I won't be starting against certain pitchers. You know that you'll be used, so you just have to be ready for that situation."
The Pirates, who had baseball's best record (98-64) during the regular season, have been bewitched by Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, losing the first seven meetings with the Braves this year.
More to the point, Pittsburgh, which led the league in hitting (.263) and had the best record against lefthanders (34-19), is being stymied by Atlanta's lefties, who have held the heart of the Pirates order -- namely Andy Van Slyke, rightfielder Bobby Bonilla and leftfielder Barry Bonds -- to a .244 average for the series.
The Pirates left 21 runners on base in the two games here this weekend, and were bailed out only by LaValliere's clutch hitting and some stellar defense.
"We're running into some pretty darned good pitching," said Pirates pitcher Bob Walk. "I give all the credit to the Braves. We're just facing some really good pitching and we as a pitching staff are going to have to match it."
They pretty much did just that. After starter Randy Tomlin gave up two runs in a rocky first inning, the combined effort of Tomlin, Walk and closer Stan Belinda, who got the win, shut down the Braves, allowing just three hits over the final nine innings.
"The first inning just smacked everybody in the face," said Ray Miller, the Pirates pitching coach, who formerly held the same duties with the Orioles. "After the first, everybody just came in here and said 'Enough.' My little guy Randy pitched his heart out."
And when they weren't hitting, Bonds, Van Slyke, Bonilla, second baseman Jose Lind and third baseman Steve Buechele were throwing the leather at the Braves.
In the seventh, Atlanta leftfielder Lonnie Smith sliced a drive to right-center, which Van Slyke dove for, but couldn't get. However, Lind, who had drifted out to assist, got the loose ball and fired to shortstop Jay Bell to nail Smith, trying to stretch a single.
In the eighth, Bonds made a diving, sliding catch of a drive from Braves rightfielder David Justice, and Buechele made a leaping backhanded snare of a smash off the bat of catcher Greg Olson in the eighth.
Finally, Bonilla made a catch with his back against the wall of a long fly from Smith, leading off the 10th.
"They've got a great defense. Pittsburgh is lucky to have a defense like that," said Justice. "Not only can they hit, but they can all play defense. Their defense won that game tonight."
By contrast, Justice's lapse in judgment may have given the Pirates their opening to get back in the game.
In the fifth, with two out and first baseman Gary Redus on first on a single, Bell hit a single to right. Justice, who committed seven errors -- a club-high among outfielders -- tried to throw the speedy Redus out at third, but missed the cutoff man, shortstop Rafael Belliard.
The throw got away from third baseman Terry Pendleton and toward the Pirates' dugout. Justice was charged with an error, as Redus scored and Bell went to third.
"I don't need Belliard on that play," said Justice. "I'm always going to be aggressive. I want my pitchers to know that I'm not going to let someone go from first to third on me."
If the Braves go on to lose the pennant after having the lead in Game 4, and the momentum in the series, Justice will have a whole offseason to wonder about what he really needs.