Maybe it was because 2,000 fans discovered that their seats were already taken. Or maybe it was because The Atlanta Journal-Constitution saw fit to print a postseason-style position-by-position comparison of the two teams. Or maybe it was because of the fumes emanating from the mysterious bottle in the locker of Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jose Rijo. Whatever it was, this four-game series in June between the Reds and the host Atlanta Braves last week sure didn't seem like a four-game series in June.
Here were two division rivals, each hotter than Georgia asphalt, drawing four sellout crowds over four glorious days at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. And what the fans witnessed were 38 tense innings in which neither team ever led by more than two runs. "For June baseball it doesn't get more thrilling," said Braves catcher Greg Olson after his team had taken three of four from the Reds and tomahawk-chopped Cincinnati's lead in the National League West to 1½ games. "The NBA just ended, and everyone is waiting for September to see the pennant race. But they may just have seen half of one already."
After Atlanta scratched out a 2-0 victory in the series finale on Sunday, Braves manager Bobby Cox lent a bit of perspective to the proceedings. "The Reds have good pitching, good hitting, good defense and a great bullpen," he said. "Now I'm going to go grab a sandwich."
O.K., so it was just a four-game series in June. But it was special, too. The Reds hit town on Thursday having won six in a row and 18 of their last 22; the Braves had won seven straight and 16 of 18. The series was so big that Game I was beyond sellout, drawing an extra 2,000 fans because of an accidental duplication of tickets. The Journal-Constitution spared no space in previewing the confrontation, moving one of its sportswriters, Joe Strauss, to ask, "If the Braves sweep, is there a parade on Monday?"
Each of the four games was a tightly contested jewel: Cincinnati snatched the first one 7-5 in 10 innings and then lost 3-2 on Friday (again in 10) and 2-1 on Saturday before being shut out on Sunday. For the 178,405 who showed up and got to sit down, going to grab a sandwich was not advisable.
Mostly this was a series about arms. "The two pitching staffs going at it might be the two best in the division, the two best in the league," said Reds second baseman Bill Doran. No need to be so modest, Bill; right now the two staffs are the best in cither league, no question.
More specifically, this was a series about Kent Mercker's arm, as the Braves lefthander emerged as the savior in the Atlanta bullpen. In fact, the 24-year-old Mercker emerged from said pen during all four games, saving two of them and winning one. "We were the two hottest teams in the National League," said Mercker on Sunday. "And now, we're the hottest one."
When the series wasn't about arms, it was about other parts of the anatomy. The Reds' 5'7" Bip Roberts was acquired for his legs last December in a trade with the San Diego Padres for reliever Randy Myers. His emergence as a leadoff hitter (.297 average, 18 stolen bases through Sunday) and his versatility as an infielder-outfielder have allowed Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella to both manufacture runs and double-switch with abandon. In the Reds' clubhouse shortly before Friday's game, Roberts spied teammate Reggie Sanders and said, "Hey Reggie, where am I playing tonight?"
"Second base," said Sanders.
"Damn," muttered Roberts, chewing on a toothpick.