And so it was when Richmond took the field in Charlotte on Aug. 30 for the series opener. The Knights' Julian Tavarez, who was bidding to become only the second 16-game winner in the International League since 1982, was matched against the Braves' 22-year-old Kevin Lomon, who had been 86-5 in a storied high school career back in Cameron, Okla. Because his school did not have a football team, its baseball team played in the fall and spring, a total of 60 games a year. Lomon won 64 games in a row. "Fish [Brave pitching coach Bill Fischer] says I'm already washed up from pitching so much," Lomon says. Hardly. Neither Tavarez nor Lomon was around, however, when, after three hours and 40 minutes, the Knights won 4-3 in the 12th inning. "Great game if you didn't have a date afterward," said Richmond manager Grady Little, whose club slipped a half game behind Charlotte with the loss.
The highlight of the game was a confrontation in the top of the 11th between two potential major league stars. Charlotte relief ace Paul Shuey, who was called up to Cleveland in May and served as the Tribe's closer until he strained his groin sewn weeks later, went mano a mano with Richmond third baseman Jose Oliva, who hit six home runs in 59 at bats with Atlanta this summer before being returned to the minors so he could play during the strike. "Now, that was real baseball," Charlotte manager Brian Graham said later. "Shuey was throwing 96 miles an hour, Oliva was swinging 96. Guys in both dugouts were sitting there with their mouths open." Shuey poured two fastballs past Oliva, who battled back and eventually singled. But Shuey did not allow a run in two innings of work and got the win.
Richmond leapfrogged back into first the next night, when leftfielder Brian Kowitz's two-run double broke open the game in the fifth. Hiawatha Terrell Wade struck out eight in seven innings to get the 4-1 win. Named after a friend of his mother's, Wade went by Hiawatha until his first year in pro ball (1991), when he chose to be called Terrell. "The [Atlanta] Braves will want me to change it back," Wade says of his inevitable rise to the majors.
Discovered at a tryout camp by Atlanta scout Roy Clark, Wade, 21, is one of the top prospects in the game, a lefthander with a 90-mph-plus fastball, a good changeup and a loose arm. He signed his first contract in a pool hall owned by his parents in Rembert, S.C. As Clark remembers it, "I asked Hiawatha, 'Are you ready to sign?' and he said, 'Just a minute, let me finish this game.' Then he ran the table. He's a guy who takes care of business." Wade chuckled. "It was a game of six-ball," he says. "For 10 bucks."
Last Thursday night the Braves upped their lead to 1½ games, but it took them until 12:33 a.m. to do it. Rain delayed the game for almost two hours in the fifth, and then Richmond blew a 2-0 lead in the ninth. With about 200 fans left from the sellout crowd of 10,392, Kowitz homered in the top of the 10th to give Richmond a 3-2 victory. In three games Kowitz had 10 hits in 14 at bats against Charlotte. "I've never hit a home run at 12:30 in the morning," he said. "Only in my dreams."
It was Houston's turn to dream when the two teams traveled to Richmond and resumed the series last Friday at the Diamond. A near-capacity crowd of 12,192 saw another pitchers' duel—the Braves' Brad Woodall, a 15-game winner and the league's most valuable pitcher, against the Knights' Chad Ogea, who retired the first 15 hitters and took a 2-1 lead into the eighth. But then, with two out and Pat Kelly at third, Houston drilled a 2-2 slider over the rightfield wall for his fourth homer of the year. Pedro Borbon, son of the former major league reliever of the same name, retired the Knights in order in the ninth, and Houston jumped into the pile of jubilant Braves near second base.
The second player chosen in the 1989 draft, Houston, 23, has been a disappointment in his organization. He, not Javy Lopez, was expected to be Atlanta's starting catcher by now. But on this night he was the star of the game that decided a terrific pennant race.
Oliva sprayed Houston with champagne in the clubhouse and then shouted, "This won't be our only celebration; we're going to win the whole thing. This is the big leagues. We're the big leagues. And we're going to keep playing and playing."
We'll drink to that.