ATLANTA -- If the throw was another foot to the right, Minnesota catcher Brian Harper would have blocked the plate, tagged out Dave Justice and extended the longest night game in World Series history one more breathtaking inning.
But the throw from leftfielder Dan Gladden was just slightly off-line. Justice slid past Harper to give Atlanta its 5-4 victory in 12 innings. A game the Twins must quickly forget. A game they surely regret.
They survived Steve Avery. They conquered Alejandro Pena. But they couldn't finish the Braves. Yes, they still lead two games to one with Jack Morris facing John Smoltz tonight. But this Series is very different now. Very different indeed.
Morris is 13-3 at home this season, but only 5-9 on the road. He best be his usual workhorse self: The Minnesota bullpen is shot after working seven innings last night in relief of Scott Erickson, in a game that lasted four hours, four minutes.
Manager Tom Kelly tried seven pitchers and set a series record by using 23 players. His designated hitter, Chili Davis, came off the bench to tie the score with a two-run homer off Pena in the eighth. But the return to National League rules still might have cost him the game.
After Erickson struck out on three pitches in his first at-bat, Kelly said he was determined not to let his pitcher hit again. He wound up using every player on his bench, leaving a pitcher -- reliever Rick Aguilera -- as the last of his record eight pinch-hitters.
Before the game, Kelly said his pitchers had "no chance" of TC getting a hit. Afterward, he described Erickson's three swings as "brutal," adding, "Nothing against the kid, but I'm not going to embarrass people like that. That's a joke."
Alas, the Braves got the last laugh: Aguilera was forced to bawith two outs and the bases loaded in the 12th. He played third base before converting to a pitcher at Brigham Young, and batted in the NL with the New York Mets until 1989. But predictably, he flied out to center.
Kelly no doubt will be criticized for overmanaging, but his only faulty move was using his last reserve, switch-hitter Al Newman, to pinch-hit for Mike Pagliarulo leading off the 11th. True, Pagliarulo rarely faces lefthanders, but Newman popped up anyway against Mike Stanton, then remained in the game.
Newman would have been preferable to Aguilera in the 12th, buthat's besides the point. The Twins fell behind Avery 4-1, but still had numerous chances to win. Now they face the prospect of a series tie against Smoltz, the one righthander their predominantly righthanded-hitting lineup will face.
Avery, of course, was unreal after the Twins struck in the first on Gladden's tainted triple and Chuck Knoblauch's sacrifice fly. He retired 15 in a row after the leadoff hit, only to allow back-to-back singles to start the sixth. The Twins hit two balls to the wall later that inning, but did not score.
It was the start of a trend. The Twins also advanced runners to third base with fewer than two outs in the eighth and 12th innings. Each time they needed only a sacrifice fly to push across the go-ahead run. Each time they failed to get it.
The eighth was particularly grating, especially after Davis hit hidramatic opposite-field home run with none out. Including post-season, Pena had converted all 14 of his save opportunities since joining the Braves Aug. 29. Not only did he blow his perfect record, he almost blew the game.
He retired Gladden after the homer, then gave up back-to-bacsingles to Knoblauch and Kent Hrbek. The next batter, Kirby Puckett, had homered off Avery the previous inning for his first series hit. But Pena struck him out on a high fastball, then fanned Shane Mack on a similar pitch.
Never mind that catcher Greg Olson blocked a potentialldevastating wild pitch with Puckett batting. From that point on, the Twins were never the same. "We tried to win the game within a 9-10 inning structure," Kelly said. "But we couldn't get the job done."
Hrbek twice took called third strikes with runners in scoring position in extra innings. Puckett twice received intentional walks behind him to get to the pitcher's spot. Kelly set up his order that way with a double switch in the eighth. He never dreamed it would prove so haunting.
The 12th was the Twins' last gasp, and they had a pitcher pinch-hitting for a pitcher with the bases loaded and two outs. Aguilera was the last man out of the bullpen, and he said he would have worked "as long as I was needed." Kelly said his next reliever would have been Morris.
It didn't get that far. Justice lined a one-out single to right, but Aguilera had Olson 0-2 with two outs. That should have been it for the inning. But Aguilera walked Olson after Justice stole second. Then second baseman Mark Lemke atoned for his error in the top half with his game-winning single to left.
A better throw by Gladden, and Harper blocks the plate, and tags Justice for the third out. But on this night, the Twins simply could not seize the moment. A game they must quickly forget. A game they surely regret.