Wakefield carries burden, doesn't knuckle under

October 11, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- It's funny, but Tim Wakefield didn't look as though he was carrying the hopes and dreams of a city and its baseball team Friday night at Three Rivers Stadium.

Yet, with the Pittsburgh Pirates trailing the Atlanta Braves, 2-0, in the National League Championship Series, and facing a hole from which no team has emerged, Wakefield was the proverbial Atlas for the Pirates, beating the Braves, 3-2.

The 26-year-old knuckleballer, barely two years removed from a going-nowhere-fast career as a first baseman, kept Atlanta hitters, who had battered Pittsburgh pitching in the first two NLCS games, off stride.

Wakefield, starting his third month as a big-league pitcher, offered the Braves off-speed tosses that barely broke the speed limit, yet made them look silly. He surrendered bases-empty home runs to Sid Bream and Ron Gant and only five hits overall, as he became the first rookie starter to win an NLCS game in eight years.

"I don't like to judge myself, but I feel confident that I had a good night pitching," said Wakefield. "I threw a lot of strikes, and I established early that I could throw strikes."

Wakefield threw 77 of his 109 pitches for strikes -- a remarkable percentage for a pitch that can be so uncontrollable.

"He stayed with the knuckleball most all the time and he didn't give in. That's what we wanted to do," said Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland.

Wakefield not only was effective on the mound, but also made a critical fielding play in the third, throwing out second baseman Mark Lemke, who had doubled to lead off the inning and was moving to third on pitcher Tom Glavine's sacrifice attempt.

"I think the poise is just the confidence I have in myself. As far as my defense, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time," said Wakefield, the first Pirates pitcher to throw a complete game in the playoffs in 12 years.

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said: "He threw well. He gave us some runs, we hit the ball well, but we hit them right at them, which hurt us."

The Pirates still trailed the best of seven series, 2-1, going into last night's game, but at least they will not be the first National League team to be swept in a seven-game playoff series.

While Wakefield's performance was crucial, the Pirates, who looked as befuddled in the first two games as the Braves did in Game 3, got a measure of self-respect back, after two straight years of postseason disappointment and dreadful play in

Atlanta.

"If we had been in Atlanta and played the way we could and got beat, that's OK. But we didn't," said Leyland. "Down in Atlanta, we may have gotten beat anyway, but we really didn't play the way the Pittsburgh Pirates play. [Friday night] you saw the way the Pittsburgh Pirates play.

"Timmy kept holding them and we kept getting a chance. Those things are very important. A lot of nice things go hand in hand. Throwing strikes, putting the ball in play, that goes hand-in-hand with good defense."

The Pirates got a particular spark from first baseman and leadoff man Gary Redus, who singled, doubled and tripled, and played heads-up defense.

"The thing I try to do at first base is not embarrass myself," said Redus, a converted outfielder. "To do that, I try to make all the easy plays. If I make all the easy plays, the hard ones will take care of themselves. I'm not flashy."

Redus, the Pirates' leading hitter in the series, with three hits in six at-bats, got his team started in the first with some flash, tripling to center, just over the leap of Atlanta's Otis Nixon.

But the middle of the Pirates' order, which has traditionally struggled in postseason play, failed again, leaving Redus at third.

"I didn't get down and I don't think the team got down. It would have been a big morale booster to score first and get ahead of these guys," said Redus.

But the Pirates would eventually get untracked, and most significantly do it at the expense of Glavine, who lost his first 1992 decision to Pittsburgh in five starts, and dropped his fourth game in his last five overall starts.

Pittsburgh center fielder Andy Van Slyke, who was hitting just .167 for the series before last night's game, doubled and scored in the sixth, and drove in the winning run in the seventh, when Redus scored on his sacrifice fly to right.

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