ATLANTA -- You could cut the tension with a tomahawk.
The Atlanta Braves, who'd never been to the World Series, really wanted to prolong the experience. They were down, two games to none. They'd wasted a 4-1 lead with phenom Steve Avery on the mound. They were in the 12th inning. The two teams had used a Series-record 42 players between them, and Atlanta, the city of losers, was on the verge of taking a big chop to the neck.
And then came Mark Lemke.
You were warned about these guys, the kind that a manager calls "the original dirt player."
The Braves second baseman had botched a double-play ball in the top of the 12th that almost cost the game, and then he blooped a single to left to win it in the bottom of the inning.
That's how these games go. Everything that seemed possible to happen had happened to that point, including the DH-less Twins running out of pinch hitters. The game had everything -- it had to, as long as it lasted. This was not so much a ballgame as it was a telethon. Four hours, four minutes, for those of you keeping score at home, ending with Lemke, who was 1-for-7 in the Series, a .234 hitter in the regular season, playing the starring role.
For the Twins, it came down to Rick Aguilera, the only guy they had left. The star reliever entered the game as a pinch hitter -- that's the kind of game it was -- and lined to center with the bases loaded in the 12th. He was the Twins' seventh pitcher and the last player they had, excepting their next two starting pitchers. He had to stay until the game was won or lost. It was his. He owned it.
He lost it.
Aguilera lost it on the bloop single and a throw home that might have gotten David Justice, who, we know, has had troubles scoring.
As Lemke put it: "I didn't get a really good look at the throw, but as long as he touched third base I'm happy."
Justice had missed third in Game 5 of the National League playoffs in what would be a 1-0 loss for the Braves. On this one, he got the bag and then had to make a nice slide to get around BTC the catcher. It was an ending to suit this game, but who could have thought there'd be a game like this?
Not with Avery on the mound. For five innings last night, Avery might as well have been Koufax and Carlton and Roy Hobbs combined.
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 as it is, of the Atlanta Braves.
Through five innings of his first World Series game, only the first World Series game ever 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.
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.
And if anyone could save Avery, it was Pena, who came to the Braves in August and earned 14 saves in 14 chances. Now, he has one blown save.
Still the Braves won. They're down, two games to one, and they've got John Smoltz, who was 12-2 in the second half and 2-0 in the playoffs, going against Jack Morris, who won the first game of the Series. They're alive, for now. If they'd lost last night, they would have been down, 3-0, and that's the same, historically, as putting the chairs on top of the table and turning out the lights. At 12:42 a.m., the lights were still on at Atlanta Stadium.