MINNEAPOLIS -- The Atlanta Braves came back to Minnesota and found that nothing had changed. That old Metrodome magic still had them in its spell.
The Minnesota Twins, who have never lost a World Series game under the Teflon big top, scored an 11-inning, 4-3 victory in Game 6 last night to take the Fall Classic to the limit.
Kirby Puckett greeted Charlie Leibrandt, the Braves fourth pitcher, with a towering home run to left field to even the best-of-seven series at three games apiece and set up a climactic seventh-game showdown between Twins veteran Jack Morris and Braves right-hander John Smoltz.
If this is beginning to look a lot like the 1987 World Series, don't expect to hear any complaints from the Twins, who won all four games at home that year to upset the St. Louis Cardinals. They take this home-field advantage thing pretty seriously, and who can blame them after seven consecutive World Series victories here?
The Braves didn't have to win last night, but it would have been a good idea. They had their best postseason pitcher -- Steve Avery -- lined up to finish off the Twins in six, but he wasn't around when the game finally was decided.
Avery pitched six innings and gave up three runs on six hits before giving way to reliever Mike Stanton and Alejandro Pena before Leibrandt's fateful arrival. Rick Aguilera got the victory for the Twins.
The Braves had to come from behind twice just to send the game into extra innings. They overcame a two-run deficit on a fifth-inning home run by Terry Pendleton and evened the score again when Ron Gant beat oujt a potential double-play ball to score Mark Lemke in the seventh.
Game 6 brought together two of the brightest young pitchers in baseball for the second time in the Series, but the conditions had changed dramatically since second-year staarters Scott Erickson and Avery went heand-to-head in Game 3 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Both pitchers were working on three days rest which left thier endurance and command subject to question. Avery, in particular, had thrown a lot of innings in the post season, so there was room to wonder if his continued effectiveness could be taken for granted.
Avery had created an aura of invincibility with two overpowering performances in the playoffs and a strong seven innings in his World Series debut, but it was punctured in a hurry last night.
The Twins scored two runs on four hits in the first inning, the biggest blow a ground ball triple that -- who else? -- Puckett pulled down the left-field line with one out and Chuck Knoblauch on base. Puckett scored the second run when Shane Mack broke his bat and an 0-for-15 Series slump with a soft single over the head of Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton.
None of the four hits were particularly well-hit, but the two-run rally got the sellout crowd right into the game and gave the high-strung Erickson a margin for error.
Erickson won 20 games during the regular season, but he took the mound last night still trying to prove he was the same pitcher who overpowered the American League before an arm problem forced him onto the disabled list in July. He had not pitched well in his two previous postseason starts, allowing eight base-runners over 4 2/3 innings in Game 3 and walking five in a four-inning performance during the playoffs.
This time, he pitched with runners on base in each of the first five innings, but he was fortunate enough to stay out of serious trouble until Pendleton tied the game with a two-run homer to straightaway center in the fifth.
Manager Kelly apparently doesn't have tremendous faith in his winningest pitcher. He had someone throwing in the bullpen after Erickson gave up an infield single to Rafael Belliard in the fifth. How often does that happen with a 20-game winner on the mound?
Kelly apparently knew something was up, and maybe it was Erickson's fastball. The young right-hander gave up the game-tying home run to Pendleton and allowed an upper deck shot to David Justice that was foul by only a couple of feet.
But Erickson could have gotten off easier with a little luck. The bases would have been empty when Pendleton came to the plate if Knoblauch had not lost the handle on a seemingly routine double-play relay moments earlier.
He couldn't exactly complain, however, since the Twins defense had helped him stay out of trouble on a couple of other occasions.
Erickson left the game after giving up a leadoff single in the seventh inning, but he cleared his name. He went six-plus innings and gave up two runs on five hits, which is not bad for a guy who wasn't supposed to be able to pitch under big-game pressure.
Credit Puckett with the save of the day. He made a spectacular leaping catch to rob Ron Gant of an RBI extra-base hit in the third inning, bouncing off the center-field fence to save a run. Third baseman Scott Leius also made a fine defensive play, leaping high to pull down a line drive off the bat of Brian Hunter an inning earlier.
Justice was right. He said Thursday night that the Twins would be a different team when they got back to the Metrodome. Nobody plays domeball better.
The Braves still were trying to adjust to the strange dimensions and the gray-white roof, as evidenced by the Kent Hrbek pop fly that eluded Hunter in left and dropped in for a double in the fourth inning.