ATLANTA -- John Smoltz had to envision it something like this. Had to see himself going eight innings, giving up no earned runs, saying his own fond farewell to retiring Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
But not exactly like this.
In his visualization, the Braves win the final game in the old ballpark. They don't get blindsided by New York Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte.
Smoltz could not have pitched much better. He gave up just four hits and struck out 10, but an error in the outfield led to one unearned run and that was enough to spoil the final -- and perhaps finest -- game of his greatest season.
"Truly, for me, it was the best game I ever pitched," said Smoltz. "I didn't have a thing left when I left the mound."
He'll get his Cy Young Award and a giant contract, but there is a pretty good chance he won't get to celebrate a second straight World Series title. The Yankees are going home up, three games to two, in the 92nd World Series and there is nothing more that Smoltz can do about it.
Start spreading the blues. Pettitte was just a little better, pitching 8 1/3 shutout innings to redeem himself for a horrible start in Game 1.
"My job's done," Smoltz said. "It's going to be like the St. Louis situation [when the Braves were down 3-1 in the playoffs]. Every out, every pitch, every at-bat is going to be important."
The only time Smoltz blinked was after center fielder Marquis Grissom dropped a leadoff fly ball by Charlie Hayes in the fourth inning. Cecil Fielder came up one out later and doubled down the left-field line to drive home the only run of the game.
"I didn't give in and neither did Pettitte," Smoltz said. "It was truly an emotional game. Everybody was grinding. Everybody was doing the best that they could do. It's a little frustrating. I wanted one pitch back and that was the pitch to Cecil Fielder."
Now, everything has changed. The Braves -- thanks to Smoltz and right-hander Greg Maddux -- won both games in New York and sent the city of Atlanta into such a state of heady euphoria that one newspaper headline read "Why even bother playing it out?"
Some of the Braves were furious about that and Smoltz was one of them. The last thing they wanted was for anyone to give the Yankees a wake-up call.
"We were realistic," Smoltz said. "We knew that this was going to be a tough series. When everyone was partying [after Game 2], we knew we still had to play.
"You don't ever want to give anybody extra incentive. That's not to say that's the reason they won three straight games, but everybody in our clubhouse knows that they are a great team. They haven't lost a road game."
The Braves haven't lost one in this World Series either. They suddenly find themselves at a big disadvantage, but they have Maddux -- the best pitcher of the 1990s -- going to the mound in Game 6.
"It's gut check time again," Smoltz said, "and I have all the confidence in the world that our guys can win two games. We won two games there before and we have two great pitchers, Maddux and [Tom] Glavine, going for us."
Smoltz has been reduced to the role of spectator now. He is eligible to become a free agent and he picked the right year to turn in the best season of his career, so the competition for his services in a pitching-poor free-agent market should be fierce.
He'll probably stay. He wants to, and the Braves want him to. He'll probably be the Opening Day pitcher in the new stadium across the street. One way or another, he'll be remembered as the guy who threw the best game of his career in the final game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Didn't give up an earned run in Game 5 of the 92nd World Series.
Smoltz says he can live with that.
The Yankees finished the postseason undefeated on the road after going 43-39 away from New York in the regular season.
Date Opponent Score
10/4 at Texas 3-2
10/5 at Texas 6-4
10/11 at Orioles 5-2
10/12 at Orioles 8-4
10/13 at Orioles 6-4
10/22 at Atlanta 5-2
10/23 at Atlanta 8-6 in 10
10/24 at Atlanta 1-0
Pub Date: 10/25/96