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 starting pitcher 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 a tomahawk-waving crowd of 50,878 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.
Second baseman Mark Lemke brought home David Justice from second base with a two-out single off Twins stopper Rick Aguilera to keep the Braves from falling into a 3-0 hole -- from which no team has escaped in the postseason.
"We know we need a couple of wins here, maybe three," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "We knew if we didn't win the first one tonight, we'd be going home pretty soon. It was just a very hard-fought ballgame."
Lemke's line drive to left was fielded on the run by Twins outfielder Dan Gladden, but Justice slid across the plate just ahead of his one-hop throw to score the first earned run off a Minnesota reliever in postseason play since Game 5 of the 1987 World Series -- a streak of 32 2/3 innings.
"I'm just glad he touched third base," said Lemke, in joking reference to Justice's now-famous base-running mistake in the National League playoffs.
The Braves were just happy to get out of the game with their world championship hopes still realistic, but it could have been over a lot sooner.
It could have been over before Twins manager Tom Kelly used up his entire bench and had to pinch-hit Aguilera with the bases loaded in the 11th. It could have been over before both teams set records for players and pinch hitters employed in a World Series game. It could have been such a nice, tidy little game.
Avery had overpowered the Twins for seven innings and appeared to be on the way to his third straight postseason victory, but 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 11 regular-season opportunities and three postseason save situations. But there is a first time for everything.
"I didn't think Steve was quite as sharp as he was in his last two starts," Cox said. "We thought he lost a lot in the seventh inning, but we wanted him to start the eighth."
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.
Justice and Ron Gant converged on the fly ball by 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 end Avery's impressive streak.
So he started another one.
He followed up the Gladden triple with a string of 15 consecutive outs to give the Braves some time to regroup against Twins starter Scott Erickson. They had scored just 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 just once in the American League Championship Series and lasted only four innings. He gave up FTC 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 on a two-out 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 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 the inning with a line drive that barely cleared the wall in right field. It was the first home run of the Series for Atlanta and the first of four (by both teams) at the stadium, which was known as the "Launching Pad" before anyone ever heard of the "Chop Shop."
(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