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Grit vs. Glamour
Michael Bamberger
October 19, 1998
The down-and-dirty Padres had the vaunted Braves facing elimination in the National League Championship Series
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October 19, 1998

Grit Vs. Glamour

The down-and-dirty Padres had the vaunted Braves facing elimination in the National League Championship Series

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With one out the Padres' Ken Caminiti came to the plate to face Braves reliever Kerry Ligtenberg. Caminiti, crazily intense, with piercing eyes that constantly dart every which way, was still kicking himself for "acting like such a jerk" after San Diego had demolished the Houston Astros in the Division Series. Caminiti had played poorly against Houston and had moped around afterward when he should have been, he subsequently realized, celebrating. When Ligtenberg fell behind him, three balls and a strike, Caminiti smelled fastball and the opportunity to redeem himself. Bam! A 413-foot shot over the centerfield wall. The Padres finished the Braves off in the bottom of the 10th, and the opening victory was in the bank, 3-2. Later Caminiti was asked if, despite the moribund atmosphere, the game had felt like a playoff opener. His answer was simple and direct: "Hell, yes."

In Game 2, San Diego had Brown, its best and most emotional pitcher, on the mound. The Padres were on the railing of their dugout from the first pitch. On the other side the Braves—reserved by nature and perhaps because of their vast experience—sat on their hands to keep them warm on a chilly night.

Brown was a one-man wrecking crew. He pitched the entire game, allowed no runs and only three hits, struck out 11, fielded his position flawlessly, went 2 for 4, scored one run and set up another, and ran the diamond like a wild man. (He ended the sixth inning with a headfirst slide into third, trying to take two bases on a single, and finished the game with a dirt-covered uniform.) After the game people were comparing him to the stud Little League pitcher who bats fourth, plays short when he's not on the mound, tells all the other kids what to do during the game and deflects praise while wolfing down pizza afterward.

The Braves, for all their strengths, have nobody like Brown, an intense, combative perfectionist who beat Atlanta twice in last year's National League Championship Series while a member of the Florida Marlins. San Diego is the fourth team Brown has played for, and he's never won popularity contests at any of his stops. But as he helped extend the Padres' season, he was making new friends. "Brown's a good guy, after the game is over, when everything mellows out," says San Diego slugger Greg Vaughn, who suffered a strained left quadriceps in Game 1 that limited him to one at bat in the next four games. Before everything mellows out, bathroom fixtures in Brown's way are in jeopardy. Teammates, able to clear a path, do so. But all was well after he essentially won Game 2 for the Padres by himself, 3-0.

As the teams moved to San Diego last Saturday for Game 3, the Braves, true to form, were not panicking. The pitching matchup pitted Maddux (202-117 lifetime with a 2.75 ERA) against Sterling Hitchcock (48-42 lifetime with a 5.07 ERA). You're Cox, and you're filling out your lineup card, and you're down two games to none, and you're on the road, and you have to admit it: You still like your chances. After all, Maddux is the best pitcher of his era and probably several others, and in the six seasons that he, Smoltz and Glavine have been in the same rotation, they have lost three games in a row only five times. Said Hitchcock, "There's no pressure on me. I'm not expected to win."

But he did, by taking a page out of Brown's book. Trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the fifth, Hitchcock, a lifetime .120 hitter, began a rally with a one-out single, a dribbling grounder through the infield. The next batter, Quilvio Veras, hit a weak bouncer to the mound. Maddux went for die sure out at first, and now Hitchcock stood at second with two down. Up came Finley, San Diego's superb defensive centerfielder. He smacked a double into territory he knows well, the left center gap, and Hitchcock came puffing home. The score was tied, and coming to the plate was Gwynn, the best hitter of his era and probably several others. Gwynn had had an off year and a mediocre postseason to that point, but he owns Maddux, against whom he had hit .443, so the Braves decided to walk him and take their chances with...Caminiti.

Caminiti was practically frothing all over his neat goatee, so fired up was he. His buddy and teammate Jim Leyritz had got him going. Leyritz, the Padres' backup catcher, is one of those players who opposing teams can't stand and teammates rally around. In 1996 he was with the Yankees when his Game 4 three-run homer off Mark Wohlers helped New York defeat the Braves. Last Saturday, Leyritz struck out swinging in the first—but only after Maddux had asked for an appeal to the first base umpire to see if Leyritz had gone around. His next time up, in the fourth, Leyritz asked the home plate umpire to check die ball for a scrape mark or a foreign substance. Plunk! Maddux, the ultimate control pitcher, threw one in the vicinity of Leyritz's head, hitting him in die shoulder.

Finally, a show of emotion by a Brave! But this one seemed to backfire. "The only thing Maddux did," Leyritz said later, "was fire us up." In the next inning Caminiti faced Maddux, and he was ready. He ripped one—O.K., it was a 150-foot, up-the-middle grounder, but it was enough to score Hitchcock and give the Padres a 2-1 lead, which was all they needed. San Diego was up three games to none.

At that point one could only wonder, What's with diese Braves, who seem to play their best baseball only during the regular season? On Sunday they finally played loose, and with heart. Down one run in the seventh, they pulled out all die stops and came back. Every player was on his feet, screaming praise to his teammates as more than 60,000 fans suddenly went silent. Andres Galarraga, done with his long nap—the Big Cat had gone 1 for 11 with five strikeouts in die first three games—smoked a grand slam that put the game out of reach as Atlanta finally got a win, trouncing die Padres 8-3. "It's tough to play with emotion when you're not scoring runs," Galarraga said later. But what comes first, the emotion or the runs?

The fire having been lit under the Braves, though, it continued to burn in Game 5. That one ended with the never-say-die Padres sending the winning run to the plate with the best matchup San Diego could have hoped for: Gwynn versus Maddux, with Caminiti on deck. This time the best pitcher of this era took his chances against the best hitter. Gwynn grounded out. The series was headed back to Atlanta. No team in baseball history has ever won a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games. The Braves were looking to make a little history.

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