Braves leave fans breathless waiting for win


October 23, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

ATLANTA -- You could cut the tension with a tomahawk.

The Atlanta Braves, who've never been to the World Series, really wanted to prolong the experience.

They'd wasted a 4-1 lead with phenom Steve Avery on the mound, and then it was hold-your-breath baseball. It was great. It had everything -- it had to, as long as it lasted, including a cast of thousands. This was not so much a ballgame as it was a telethon.

It came down to Rick Aguilera, the only guy left for the Twins. He entered the game as a pinch hitter, and lined to center with the bases loaded in the 12th. He was the last player except for two starting pitchers. He had to stay until the game was won or lost. It was his. He owned it.

And he lost it. The Twins star reliever didn't even make it an inning when Mark Lemke, whose error had almost lost the game in the top of the inning, singled home Dave Justice with the winner. It was that crazy.

It didn't seem as if it would be that way. For five innings, Avery might as well have been Koufax and Carlton and Roy Hobbs.

For five innings, it didn't seem that strange that a guy had called a radio show to say Avery reminded him of a young Babe Ruth.

Of course. He's 21 and he's a phenom and he owns a presence that puts you in mind of greatness. He also has that 98-mph fastball.

All they asked him to do with it last night was secure the good name, such at is, of the Atlanta Braves.

Through five innings of his first World Series game, the first World Series game played here, Avery had given up a run -- his first run in the postseason. And that was it. One run on a tainted hit, the only hit he'd allowed. He had struck out five and retired 15 in a row. Koufax, hell. He was Don Larsen.

He was special. He is special. But the game didn't end there.

When Avery gave up a couple of hits in the sixth and two long outs that were nearly three-run homers, suddenly a 4-1 lead didn't seem so sure.

When Kirby Puckett slapped a home run in the seventh, all the tomahawkers in the crowd were chop-happy no more.

And then came the eighth. Maybe you saw it. Pinch hitter Brian Harper hit a ball sharply to third that Terry Pendleton couldn't handle, and Avery was gone.

It got worse. Chili Davis showed up, and he punched an opposite-field, two-run homer against Alejandro Pena, and Avery was done. His game was over. He didn't win, and he didn't lose either, but don't tell him that.

Suddenly, Avery was the aging 21-year-old phenom.

They call him The Kid, which just goes to show there are no good nicknames any more. No Joltin' Joes or Splendid Splinters or Sultans of Swat. This is probably the fault of modern sportswriters, who no longer appreciate the value of a good nickname. Or maybe it's the players. Is there a chance in the world any modern player would agree to go by Georgia Peach?

Andy Van Slyke came up with Poison Avery, which isn't bad. He was poison to the Pirates, pitching 16 1/3 innings of shutout ball in two 1-0 games and charge that part of America that was paying attention to grasp for adjectives to describe the young man.

What couldn't he do? He beat the Dodgers three times, including twice in September. He turned away the Pirates, who are the best-hitting team in the National League. They talked about his nerve. They talked about his stuff. And they figured that if anyone could save the Braves, it was Avery.

But, in the end, he had to leave the matter to others.

Which brings us back to Davis. Remember him?

He's the DH who can't play in the National League park and who had to settle for being a pinch hitter. He also settled for his second two-run homer in two games. He said he was coming to this game as a highly paid cheerleader, but Davis showed a little better stuff with the bat.

Davis is quite a story. A year ago, he was playing for California and not playing particularly well. His home-run production dropped to 12 and his RBI to 58, about half of what he'd had the year before, and suddenly the Angels didn't want him anymore.

No one did.

He was a free agent in search of job. What you have in the free-agent market, as Mickey Tettleton could tell you, is guys who make all the money and guys nobody wants. Nobody wanted Davis except the Twins, who needed a DH and needed some power to replaced the departed Gary Gaetti.

"I had no idea I'd be in Minnesota until I got here," Davis said. "I talked to Tom Kelly, asked him some questions and he gave me the right answers."

You know the rest -- 29 homers, 93 RBI, and the Twins look like geniuses.

But he had to leave the game after pinch hitting. Davis, who once made 19 errors in the outfield in a season, went to the bench, a safe place for him.

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