Who'll be next little man to do the big thing for Braves?

Ken Rosenthal

October 24, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- It's only proper that in this worst-to-first World Series, the meek shall inherit the earth. Book it: Tonight's hero will be either Minnesota's Jarvis Brown or Atlanta's Francisco Cabrera. You've never heard of them, so watch out.

Not that this Series is getting ridiculous or anything, but the Braves won, 3-2, last night on a ninth-inning triple by that noted power threat, second baseman Mark Lemke, and a sacrifice fly by that fearsome pinch-hitter, reserve catcher Jerry Willard.

A triple by Lemke? Of course. He has three such hits in 621 career at-bats, and a lifetime .225 average. A sacrifice fly by Willard? Absolutely expected. He has only 23 major-league at-bats the past five seasons, but 14 of them came this year.

Too bad the late Eddie Gaedel isn't in this Sseries. The midget would hit a home run.

At 5-foot-9, Lemke isn't much bigger, but he won Game 3 with a 12th-inning single, and rapped a single and double before scoring the winning run after his triple last night. All this, from a defensive specialist who made a near-fatal error in the top of the 12th Tuesday night.

This wacky Series is now tied at two games each, and Lemke has five hits -- as many as Minnestoa's Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek and Shane Mack combined. The baseball commissioner's office ought to endow a chair for him in the post-game interview room. He's showing up every night.

Sure hope the TV ratings are satisfactory now for CBS. Three straight one-run games. Two straight decided on hook slides at home plate. And a fresh rags-to-riches story every night. First the Twins' Greg Gagne and Scott Leius. Now the Braves' Lemke and Willard.

Oh yes, Willard. He was released by Cleveland in 1986 and Oakland in '87 and did not play at all because of a disc problem in '88. The Braves signed him as a minor-league free agent last winter. He nudged out Vinny Castilla for a spot on the postseason roster. That's right, Vinny Castilla.

As Butch said to Sundance: Who are these guys?

Lemke, 26, was a 27th-round draft pick who spent seven years in the minors before his first full season with Atlanta in '90. Willard, 31, was a non-drafted free agent whose most notable achievement was getting traded with four others for Von Hayes.

Julio Franco also went from Philadelphia to Cleveland in that deal, but guess who now has more Series RBIs? Willard actually worked in construction and then at an athletic club while sitting out '88. But then he thought better of it: "I said, 'Oh boy, I can't handle this 9-to-5.' "

Lemke spent five straight years in Single-A ball, and also considered quitting. But as he put it, "They'd have to take the jersey off my back to get me out of there. Those thoughts go through your mind. But this is what I wanted to do. I wasn't going to let anything get in my way."

Even in spring training, Lemke feared for his job, for he was the only infielder with a minor-league option remaining. But the Braves released Andres Thomas instead, and last night manager Bobby Cox said, "If there was one guy who was going to make it this spring, it was Mark Lemke."

Sure, Bobby, sure.

Sorry to get you going.

"You have to understand," the manager explained when asked to assess his other budding superstar. "Jerry Willard is a very good hitter. I haven't used him enough, but we like him an awful lot. I felt extremely comfortable with him up there."

All right, now about that ninth:

Lemke, a switch-hitter, got his first two hits off Jack Morris from the left side, but was forced to bat righthanded against Mark Guthrie. The amazing thing is, he nearly hit the ball out. He hasn't hit a right-handed homer since 1989. He has only four total his entire career.

No, a home run would have been too much, so the ball bounced off the left-centerfield wall and Lemke settled for his one-out triple. The Twins then issued pinch hitter Jeff Blauser an intentional walk to set up a possible double play.

Cabrera was announced as the next pinch-hitter, but Twins manager Tom Kelly then summoned righthander Steve Bedrosian, forcing Cox into using his only remaining lefthanded hitter, the seemingly harmless Willard. With a base open, Cox told Willard to expect a walk.

Willard said he walked to the plate smiling, the better to help him relax.

"I went up there and said hello to the umpire, hello to [former minor-league teammate] Brian Harper, passed the time along," he said. "Then I got in there and I was serious."

Kelly, of course, chose to pitch to Willard rather than face Lonnie Smith at the top of the order. The Twins' outfield was playing shallow, but Willard's drive forced Mack to backpedal just enough in right. Lemke was careful tagging from third, and didn't get a particularly good jump.

Lemke said later, "He could have hit it about 20 feet further and I wouldn't have minded." But that would have been too easy. Lemke brushed shoulders with Harper at the plate, but avoided a tag. His gritty slide was the perfect ending. The meek shall inherit the earth.

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