ATLANTA -- The witching hour had passed, and Atlanta Braves second baseman Mark Lemke spent several excruciating minutes wondering which it would be -- goat-hood or glory.
Lemke's error in the top of the 12th inning set the Braves up for a classic fall, but they were still standing when he came to the plate in the bottom of the inning and delivered a dramatic single to give the club a 5-4 victory over the Minnesota Twins in the third game of the 88th World Series.
There was plenty of intrigue in between. Lemke's misplay on a ground ball by Chuck Knoblauch put the Twins in perfect position to deliver a crushing blow to the Braves and their impossible World Series championship dream. But Kent Hrbek struck out with runners at first and third, and manager Tom Kelly ran out of pinch hitters just in time to keep the Series competitive.
He was forced to send up reliever Rick Aguilera as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded and two out. Aguilera is not your typical pitcher at the plate -- he has a career average of .203 in 138 at-bats -- but he isn't going to win a lot of World Series games with his bat. He got good wood on the ball, but flied out to center to end the inning.
Re-enter Lemke, who had to watch this drama unfold with the knowledge that no team has won the World Series after losing its first three games.
"I know it at that point it wasn't the end of the world," he said. "I looked at a couple of guys in the infield and they all said, 'Hey, let's go, you're not done and we're not done.' It's unfortunate that things like that happen, but we got out of it and came through it."
He would be matched up against Aguilera in the bottom of the inning with David Justice at second base and two out. His line drive to left was fielded on the run by Dan Gladden, who might have gotten Justice at the plate with a good throw. The sellout crowd of 50,878 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which had lost some volume when the Braves blew a three-run lead earlier in the game, erupted anew as the club celebrated the franchise's first World Series victory in Atlanta.
Lemke tried to play down the goat-to-glory angle, but he had to come clean when someone asked him if he felt extra pressure at the plate to try and redeem himself after the error.
"No," he said, "but I thought it would be a pretty damn good idea if I did. Seriously, you have to take the game as it comes. Even if you make an error, you have to put it behind you and -- fortunately -- I did. I almost cost us the game and I get a chance to turn around and win it for us."
The Braves never do anything the easy way, so it should have come as no surprise that they needed 12 innings to chop the 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-season and postseason opportunities for the club before last night. The Braves just have to be pushed to the limit before they push back.
"I think a lot of us are thinking when are we going to break out of it," Lemke said. "When are we going to just break out to a big lead and not have to worry about a close game. But we've handled ourselves pretty good. Overall, we've performed pretty well under pressure."
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 Kelly used his entire bench and had to pinch-hit Aguilera with the bases loaded in a 12th. 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 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 opportunity in 11 regular-season 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.
(Twins lead series, 2-1)
Game 1 -- Minnesota 5, Atlanta 2
Game 2 -- Minnesota 3, Atlanta 2
Game 3 -- Atlanta 5, Minnesota 4
Yesterday -- Minnesota at Atlanta
Today -- 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