ATLANTA -- For some reason, it keeps coming back to Steve Avery, whose youthful appearance is a little disarming and -- you can check with the Pittsburgh Pirates on this -- a little deceptive, too.
He barely looks his 21 years, but he pitches as if he has been around since the Ice Age, judging from the way he froze the Pirates at the plate for 16 1/3 scoreless innings during the National League Championship Series.
Appearances can be deceiving. The Atlanta Braves, for instance, appear to be in desperate straits again. They returned home down, two games to none, to the Minnesota Twins in the 88th World Series, with only Avery standing in the way of a hopeless situation.
The Series resumes tonight when Avery takes on 20-game winner Scott Erickson in Game 3 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Braves virtually have to win. That is the way it was Wednesday night, when Avery pulled them back from the brink of elimination with eight shutout innings in Pittsburgh.
By the time he was through, he had set a playoff record for consecutive scoreless innings, eclipsing some pitchers who were in the major leagues longer than he has been alive. He was named Most Valuable Player of the NL playoffs. If the Braves are to come back and win the World Series, he probably will have to turn in another MVP performance this week.
Avery is the only Braves pitcher with two starts remaining in the best-of-seven series, unless manager Bobby Cox reverses his decision to go with a four-man rotation. Charlie Leibrandt and 20-game winner Tom Glavine both have lost. John Smoltz, the club's hottest pitcher in the second half, is scheduled to pitch only once -- in Game 4. That means Avery probably must overpower the Twins twice for the Braves to have a realistic chance of turning the Series around.
The now-politically incorrect chopping and chanting might fire them up a little, but the Braves no longer have much room for bTC error. Avery is facing the most important game of his career, and the foam-rubber tomahawks aren't going to help unless the Twins carry them to the plate.
Is he really immune to the pressure, as he seemed to the millions of television viewers who watched him twice stare down a formidable Pirates lineup?
"I get more excited than nervous," Avery said, seeming more uncomfortable at Sunday's interview session than he ever looked on the mound at Three Rivers Stadium on Wednesday night. "I have to keep under control, and when I get a little bit anxious, that's when I have problems with my mechanics. If I don't get anxious, I won't have any problems."
The Twins have to feel good about their two-game advantage, but they cannot feel particularly confident about tonight's game if they were watching while Avery dismissed the Pirates with such ease. He has been far more overpowering in the postseason than teammate Glavine, who gave up only one hit through the first six innings of Game 2 on Sunday night.
But Avery did lose eight games this year. He was not unbeatable until he found himself center stage. He is only a season removed from a 3-11 rookie year that had a lot of people wondering why the Braves rushed him to the major leagues. It might be a mistake to assume that Game 3 automatically will go to the Braves.
The Twins, after all, have a pretty fair pitcher taking the mound tonight. Erickson was on his way to the American League Cy Young Award when a tired arm put him on the disabled list in July. He recovered in time to become one of only four 20-game winners in the major leagues.
Erickson was not nearly so cool in the playoffs, but he won't be the one in the must-win situation.
Avery will have to carry the weight of the World Series to the mound tonight. The Twins need to win just one of the next three games to retain control of the situation. A victory tonight would push the Braves behind, 3-0, a corner that no World Series team has gotten out of. But who better than Avery to keep that from happening?
He has been the Braves' big-game pitcher since their division-title drive turned serious. He was 3-0 with an 0.57 ERA against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers this year, winning back-to-back games Sept. 15 and 20 when every pitch had a chance to decide a season.
Avery struck out 17 in his 16 1/3 playoff innings. He seemed to get better as each game became more important, a trend that may have to continue if the Braves are to beat the Twins to the greatest season-to-season comeback in major-league history.
"Basically, he's been good all year," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said, "but as the games got bigger, he seemed to elevate his game, though I don't see how you can elevate it a whole lot more than it is."