When The World Series came back to our doorsteps, like some prodigal son gone two years, it came back looking warmly familiar, in the simple ways we like to remember it. It came back with every game to be played with real grass underfoot and nothing but the expanse of October sky above—the first time that has happened in this decade. It came back with the best team from each league, a given in simpler times but a welcome gift now, considering the permutations of a playoff format swollen to three rounds and 41 possible games. Mostly, it came back reminding us—at least through the first two games—of a tenet of the game that has been as unchangeable as the 90 feet between the bases: Good pitching beats good hitting.
"Been true about as long as the game's been around;' says Cleveland Indian hitting coach Charlie Manuel. "Still is."
Yes, the World Series now may be beamed by satellite from here to Qatar, and a record 15 players on the two rosters were born off U.S. shores, but the importance of pitching is as great today as it was in 1905, the only other time the World Series resumed after missing a year (an interruption caused by the refusal in 1904 of the National League champion New York Giants to have anything to do with the upstart American League and its champion, the Boston Pilgrims). Every game of that five-game series between the Giants and the Philadelphia Athletics was a shutout, including three thrown by New York righthander Christy Mathewson.
Two games into the 1995 World Series, with Greg Maddux looking like Mathewson, the Atlanta Braves shut down, if not shut out, the Indians—the best hitting team since Cincinnati's Big Red Machine of the 1970s. In winning both games Atlanta limited Cleveland to a total of eight hits, including, in 64 at bats, only one extra-base hit. No team had stifled its World Series opponent more completely since 1966, when the Baltimore Orioles held the Los Angeles Dodgers to seven hits in the first two games.
Said Cleveland catcher Tony Pena, looking hopefully to Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5 at Jacobs Field this week, "We haven't hit like we're capable the whole postseason. Sooner or later we're going to wake up."
In their 11 postseason games through Sunday, the Indians batted .224—a 67-point falloff from their regular-season average when, in the words of Cleveland general manager John Hart, the Tribe "feasted, absolutely feasted, on teams' three-four-five starters." The built-in travel days of postseason series prevent that kind of gluttony—teams can employ as few as three starting pitchers—though Cleveland never has seen a staff as good as Atlanta's in short or long form.
Further, the National League rules used at Atlanta- Fulton County Stadium (no DH) kept the platoon of Paul Sorrento, who had 25 homers this year, and Herbert Perry, who hit .344 against lefthanders, out of the Indians' lineup. Heading into Game 3, Cleveland needed to challenge Atlanta pitching with more than just the dynamic baserunning of leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton, whose four times on base over the first two games produced more mayhem than a Stallone flick: four Atlanta errors, a wild pitch, four stolen bases and three runs scored, all of them unearned.
The Tribe's third and fourth hitters, Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle, respectively, opened the Series a combined 1 for 14 with one RBI; they totaled 216 RBIs during the regular season. Through Sunday, Belle had as many errors in this postseason as he had RBIs (four), after a year in which he became the first player to smash 50 home runs and 50 doubles. Against Maddux, Baerga and Belle hit one ball hard between them.
"One of the advantages we have is we've never seen them," Maddux said. "They've done nothing to intimidate us before. There's no bad history at work, something that would cause you to lose confidence. I think that's important. That keeps you confident against them, and when you're more confident you tend to be more aggressive. I think that's how we've pitched them."
It was not until they saw Maddux last Saturday that the Indians had as few as two hits in a game this year. In a 3-2 Atlanta win, Maddux outlasted Orel Hershiser in a riveting matchup of Cy Young Award winners who each had 150 career wins entering the game. A spent, 37-year-old Hershiser left, by his own request, with the score tied 1-1 after walking two batters to open the seventh. He suffered his first postseason loss in eight decisions when Atlanta pushed the runners across against the Cleveland bullpen without getting a ball out of the infield.