ATLANTA -- Considering the teams involved, it is fitting that this has become a World Series of improbables -- improbable players, plays and results.
Just when they had everyone convinced they couldn't top their dramatic Game 3 triumph, the Atlanta Braves went deeper into their bag of mysteries last night. After nearly blowing it with a Keystone Kops routine in the fifth inning, the National League champions evened their match with the Minnesota Twins with yet another pulsating play at home plate that produced a 3-2 victory.
Mark Lemke, who drove in the game winner the night before, was the hero again. This time he hit a one-out triple and then scored the deciding run by sliding around Minnesota catcher Brian Harper on pinch-hitter Jerry Willard's sacrifice fly to medium-deep rightfield.
The game-winning play was extremely close, with Lemke and Harper making contact -- and plate umpire Terry Tata making what replays showed to be an excellent call.
Tata ruled that Harper made contact with his shoulder, but never tagged the runner, and after a brief flurry of protests even the Twins seemed to accept the decision as correct.
For the Braves, this was just the latest in a seemingly endless series of pressure-packed games. Going back to the second game of the NLCS playoffs against Pittsburgh, seven of the Braves' last 10 games have been decided by one run -- and they have won four of them.
"I think it's probably better for the club to win the tight games," said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "But for the manager and the [coaching] staff it's better to win a couple of blowouts."
That would be contrary to the Braves' style. The last time thewon a laugher, 10-3 in the third game of the NLCS, they proceeded to lose the next two games at home, forcing yet another unlikely comeback in the final two games in Pittsburgh.
Now assured of a return to Minnesota and the gray haunts of thMetrodome, the Braves see their situation as identical to the playoffs.
"If we win tomorrow, it'll give us a little edge," said pitcher John Smoltz, still undefeated in two months after a strong seven-inning effort last night.
"But going back there would probably even it out. If we lose it'lbe the same situation as Pittsburgh, where everybody thought it was impossible to go back there and win two games."
Whatever fate may have in store, Cox isn't going to tempt it bgoing with anything but his best. Taking a page from Minnesota manager Tom Kelly, Cox has decided to ride out the season with his three best starting pitchers.
That means lefthander Tom Glavine faces Kevin Tapani tonight, Steve Avery goes against Scott Erickson in Game 6 on Saturday and Smoltz and Jack Morris get a rematch of last night's game in a possible Game 7 on Sunday.
"We're in great shape," said Cox. "We've got Glavine, Avery and Smoltz all coming off games of 100 or less pitches, following five days of rest."
Cox figures the low pitch counts on his three aces eliminate any problem of their pitching on three days of rest. Even Kelly, though he had a 2-1 lead at the time, seemed to take all that into consideration when he pinch-hit for Morris in the sixth inning last night.
Kelly raised some eyebrows when he lifted Morris after Mike Pagliarulo had given the Twins a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh inning -- but Game 4 was the kind of contest that had eyebrows perked throughout the evening.
Two innings before, with runners on first and third with one out and Morris the next scheduled hitter, Kelly tried a squeeze play that effectively took the Twins out of two innings.
The hitter was Greg Gagne, whose three-run homer triggered Minnesota's 5-2 win in Game 1, and he missed connections on a breaking ball from Smoltz, making Shane Mack an easy rundown victim. When Gagne then struck out to end the inning, Morris was left to lead off the fifth, which helped revitalize Smoltz, who retired eight in a row before Pagliarulo's homer.
But the Twins' early misfortune was miniscule compared to the base-running travesties the Braves inflicted upon themselves in the fifth inning. Lonnie Smith singled and stole second, then decided to tag up when Terry Pendleton hit a scorching liner over the head of centerfielder Kirby Puckett.
Getting a perfect carom off the fence, Puckett had the ball in second baseman Chuck Knoblauch's hands before Smith dTC rounded third base. Coach Jimy Williams never hesitated and sent Smith barreling into an out at home plate, with Harper holding the ball after a jarring collision.
Pendleton went to third on the play and then, after Ron Gant walked, compounded things by trying to score on a near wild pitch that Harper blocked and kept in front of him.
"My momentum was toward the plate and I saw the ball bounce up high," said Pendleton, "and I thought it would go away from him. Harper had to be even more surprised than I was."
It didn't matter who was more surprised, but when David Justice flied out the Braves left the basepaths desecrated -- without reaching home plate.