ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves never do anything the easy way, so it should have come as no surprise that they needed 12 innings to chop the Minnesota Twins down to size.
Never mind that Steve Avery appeared to have the game under control through the seventh. Never mind that stopper Alejandro Pena had not blown a save in 14 regular and postseason opportunities for the club before last night. Never mind that the tomahawk-waving crowd at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was right in there with them.
The Braves had to be pushed to the brink again before they emerged with a 5-4 victory in Game 3 of the 88th World Series. But emerge they did, positioning themselves to get even tonight when right-hander John Smoltz faces veteran Jack Morris.
Mark Lemke brought home David Justice with a two-out single off Rick Aguilera to keep the Braves from falling into a hole from which no team has ever escaped in the postseason. They were happy to get out of the game with their world championship hopes still realistic, but it could have been over a lot sooner.
Braves starter Steve Avery overpowered the Twins for seven innings and appeared to be on the way to his third straight postseason victory, but manager Bobby Cox went to Pena with a runner on in the eighth and would live to regret it.
Pinch hitter Chili Davis greeted Pena with a two-run homer to left that took Avery out of the decision and put the Braves into a precarious situation.
Why did Cox make the move? Because Avery was losing it. He had given up a pair of long fly balls in the sixth inning and a home run to Kirby Puckett in the seventh. And because Pena had not blown a save in 14 attempts since he was acquired from the New York Mets Aug. 29. But there is a first time for
Avery came into the game with a string of 16 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason, but a near collision in right field on the first play of the game turned a catchable fly ball into a triple and led to a quick run for the Twins.
Outfielders Justice and Ron Gant converged on the fly ball by Dan Gladden, but both shied away from it at the last moment and allowed the ball to get through to the fence. There was no Teflon roof to blame for this one. The ball was outlined against a clear October sky, but it slipped through a communication gap and Chuck Knoblauch followed with a sacrifice fly to bring an end to Avery's impressive streak.
So he started another one.
He followed the Gladden triple with 15 consecutive outs to give ** the Braves some time to regroup against Twins starter Scott Erickson. They had scored two runs in each of the first two games of the Series and they needed to get by one of the winningest pitchers in baseball.
Erickson pitched once in the American League Championship Series and lasted four innings. He gave up three hits and walked five, a shaky performance that left room to wonder how he would handle World Series pressure. There was no definitive answer last night.
He retired the first five batters he faced before the Braves bunched together a walk and two hits to even the score. Catcher Greg Olson drew the walk and moved around the bases on a base hit by Lemke and an RBI single by Rafael Belliard.
If that was the time to rattle Erickson, it was not the place. The designated hitter rule is not in effect at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, so there was only Avery to try to capitalize on a second-and-third, two-out situation. He grounded out in the first at-bat by a pitcher in this Series.
The Braves took the lead in the fourth, when Justice led off with a line drive that barely cleared the wall in right field. It was the first home run of the Series for Atlanta. The Twins hit four in two games at the Metrodome.
Sid Bream followed Justice to the plate and almost followed suit. He lined a ball off the right-field fence for a double, but was left at third. Lonnie Smith hit the Braves' second home run in the sixth, a drive that landed on top of the bank of retracted football seats behind the left-field fence.
Erickson was gone three batters later, after he handed out another walk and fell victim to an error by Knoblauch, but things just got worse for the Twins. Left-handed reliever David West came on with two out to walk Bream and Olson to force in the fourth Atlanta run.
All the while, the sellout crowd continued to chop and chant, seemingly determined to turn the tables on a Twins club that had given new meaning to the term home-field advantage.
(Twins lead series, 2-0) Game 1 -- Minnesota 5, Atlanta 2
Game 2 -- Minnesota 3, Atlanta 2
Game 3 -- Atlanta 5, Minnesota 4
Today -- Minnesota (Morris 18-12) at Atlanta (Smoltz 14-13), 8:26 p.m.
Tomorrow -- Minnesota (Tapani 16-9) at Atlanta (Glavine 20-11), 8:26 p.m.
Saturday -- Atlanta at Minnesota, 8:26 p.m.*
Sunday -- Atlanta at Minnesota, 8:40 p.m.*
* -- if necessary