ATLANTA -- The cynics, the cold-hearted and the realists will say that this Atlanta Braves thing had to end at some point.
These stick-in-the-muds would say that surely a city of zealous, victory-starved Southerners waving their right hands as if their very lives depended on it couldn't will their heroes a championship.
The logical would say that the potency of the Pittsburgh Pirates bats would eventually crush the tomahawk chop like so much chop suey.
Well, the Pirates are indeed on the doorstep of the National League pennant, leading the Braves 3-2 in the league championship series and going home tomorrow night for the 1potential clincher.
But it hasn't been the Pittsburgh lumber that has silenced the Atlanta war whoop.
Rather, as evidenced in the Pirates' 1-0 nail-biter in Game 5 yesterday, the traditional baseball foundations of pitching and defense have brought them to the verge of a World Series encounter with Minnesota.
"These last two games have been pitching and defense," said third baseman Steve Buechele, an August acquisition from Texas. "That's the kind of stuff that wins you titles."
The Pirates choked off the potent Braves offense in two of the three games played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to take control of the series.
Atlanta has been held scoreless for 18 innings, just four frames short of the NLCS record of 22, set by St. Louis against San Francisco in 1987.
"All of a sudden, we don't seem to be able to get anything untracked and we have to do that and soon," said Atlanta catcher Greg Olson.
The Braves, who operate with just a fraction of the postseason experience that Pittsburgh possesses, will attempt to crawl out of a hole that only one team -- the aforementioned '87 Cardinals -- has done since the NLCS went to a best-of-seven setup in 1985.
And Atlanta will get to face Pirates pitcher Doug Drabek, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, who strained a hamstring muscle trying to leg a double into a triple in Game 1. Drabek, scheduled to go yesterday, has been resting and getting treatments and declares himself ready.
"Right now, it's been feeling a lot better. I've been getting a lot of treatment. Hopefully, everything is going to be all right," said Drabek.
The Braves will counter with lefthander Steve Avery, who pitched a brilliant six-hit shutout last Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Tomorrow night's fight for survival could make lesser men opt for cover, but Avery, 21, claims to be ready for the challenge.
"I don't know if it's going to be that much more important than Game 2," said Avery. "I think that was a big ballgame for us because we didn't want to get swept out there."
"He definitely has a good arm," said Drabek. "For being 21 years old, he showed a lot of composure in the second game at our place. Throughout the season, he's showed that with some guys, it doesn't matter if they have experience or not."
That the Pirates, who were shellacked by Atlanta 10-3 Saturday in Game 3, are in a position to win their third pennant since divisional play came along in 1969, is a tribute to pitching, defense, wacky occurrences and just plain dumb luck.
First, the pitching. Zane Smith, the former Brave who lost Game 2, allowing just one run, pitched in and out of difficulty all day, scattering seven hits over 7 2/3 innings.
"Zane is kind of tough," said Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland. "He bends quite often, but doesn't break. He can give up a lot of hits but get the double-play ball and get out of innings.
"He is a tough kind to manage because you don't know when those ground balls will start finding the holes and I'm not that smart."
But when Smith, who threw just 92 pitches, gave up a two-out triple to batting champ Terry Pendleton in the eighth, Leyland was smart enough to fetch 33-year-old journeyman reliever Roger Mason, who got centerfielder Ron Gant to pop up meekly to Buechele.
In the ninth, Mason, who got an August callup from Triple A Buffalo, struck out rightfielder David Justice, then stranded runners on first and third.
As for the defense, despite two errors in the game, the Pirates made the big plays in the field when they needed them.
Gold Glove centerfielder Andy Van Slyke, for example, made his second spectacular catch in as many days, robbing Olson of an extra-base hit with a shoetop catch in the fourth.
"As I'm running, I couldn't have ever believed him catching the ball," said Olson.
Some of the wacky took place in the second. As in Game 2, Smith loaded the bases with no one out and figured that he could get out of the jam with a run or two's worth of damage.
Instead, he again wiggled off the hook when shortstop Rafael Belliard struck out. Then, pitcher Tom Glavine, who has lost two LCS starts while allowing just five runs and 12 hits in 14 innings, struck out trying to bunt on a suicide squeeze, leaving first baseman Brian Mitchell, who had broken from third, out to dry.