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Harper reported to Atlanta on May 27 from Richmond of the International League and in his debut broke his right thumb sliding into second; he was out for four weeks. Eight days after returning to action, he separated his left shoulder—if you can believe this—waving a runner from second to third; he was sidelined for three weeks. In the last game of the season's penultimate week Harper caught a slicing fly, crossed the foul line and dropped the ball as he tried to brace himself at the fence. The resulting gift homer contributed to a 3-2 loss to the Padres. "The best players don't get too high or low," says Harper, 27, an ingenuous fellow with an expression of perpetual astonishment. "The veterans told me to look at things in positive ways, and that's what I decided to do." Brave-watchers weren't impressed; forgetting that their team had played better on the road than at home all season, they rewrote the old obituaries as Atlanta headed out for its climactic West Coast swing.
Niekro, the 43-year-old knuckleballer, wasn't about to buy those death notices. The lone survivor of Atlanta's 1969 division champs, Niekro said he had a "burning desire" to play in a World Series. To prove it, he two-hit the Giants on Monday night, Sept. 27, in Candlestick Park. The 7-0 rout gave Atlanta a share of the lead for the first time since Sept. 12. This was the same Niekro who had been on the disabled list the first two weeks of the season with injuries in umpteen parts of his aged body. Another notable survivor, Shortstop Rafael Ramirez, contributed to the victory with a homer and two RBIs. Considered one of the Braves' weak links in spring training, Ramirez helped them break a team record for DPs with a league-leading 186. "He has probably taken more ground balls than anyone in the history of baseball this year," says Dal Maxvill, the coach who hit them. "And he can hit [he finished at .278]."
The following night the Braves won more hearts and minds. They're viewed as a slugging team, but they finished the season with more steals (150) than homers (146). "You can't go flat when you play this way," says Torre. "What you can do is force more aggressive play." On Tuesday, Royster and Right-fielder Claudell Washington stole three bases apiece, Harper hit a three-run double off the leftfield line, and Atlanta beat San Francisco 8-3 to take a one-game lead over the Dodgers.
The Braves moved to Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night and promptly went two-up by beating the Dodgers 4-3 in 12 innings. Harper homered on an 0-2 pitch off Fernando Valenzuela in the fourth and singled home the go-ahead run in a two-run 12th. "Just trying to make contact," he said, sounding like a veteran. Royster made four tough plays at third and singled in the eventual winning run. Told he looked comfortable in the field, Royster said, "I'm glad I'm fooling people, but it's pure instinct. I'm a utility player."
The Dodgers beat the Braves 10-3 Thursday, but on Friday night in San Diego it was Niekro time again. In perhaps the best clutch performance of his 257-win career, Niekro, 17-4, threw a three-hitter, hit a two-run homer and beat the Padres 4-0.
Typically, the Braves won by making the most of a glum situation. The Padres put runners on first and third with nobody out in the first when Alan Wiggins doubled on a ball Harper misjudged and Juan Bonilla reached first when Catcher Bruce Benedict muffed a third strike. "The pitch dropped about four feet," Benedict said. "I knew the knuckler was working." Niekro escaped by striking out Gene Richards and Terry Kennedy and getting Luis Salazar to line to center.
Niekro's homer couldn't have been more timely. With the Braves leading 1-0 in the eighth and Glenn Hubbard on first, Torre ordered his eighth hitter, Benedict, to sacrifice. The idea was to set up an RBI situation for Washington, not Niekro, but Torre nonetheless told Niekro, "Drive him in." Niekro ordinarily bats as if he were flycasting, and San Diego's Eric Show disdainfully grooved one. But this was no ordinary at bat: Niekro lined his seventh career homer—and first since 1976—into the leftfield seats. "I used Bruce's lighter bat so I could wait a little longer," Niekro said later. "It was like hitting a golf ball with a wood—I hardly felt it. I wanted to drop the bat and take four minutes rounding the bases."
"I expected him to hit it hard—he's a gamer," said Royster. "Everybody realizes how much a championship would mean to Phil," said Benedict. How much? Normally as excitable as a sleeping dog, Niekro clenched his fist on every out; by game's end he had extended his streak of innings without an earned run to 24. "I've got a wife and three boys I see only half the year," Niekro says. "But I'll be here until we get to the Series or I can't get the ball to the plate."
On Saturday night the Braves gave 46,287 fans and one full moon an object lesson in intelligent, aggressive baseball. Perez may not be able to find Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, but he had no trouble locating the lower reaches of the strike zone. He threw hard into the sixth inning, whereupon Torre went to his "animals." Relievers Steve (Bedrock) Bedrosian and bearded Gene Garber two-hit the Padres the rest of the way. The final: Braves 4-2.
Aggressive? "We had to be with Horner out of the lineup," said First Baseman Chris Chambliss, who hit his 20th homer, a career high, in the third. Otherwise the Braves set up runs with alert advances. Harper singled, stole second and went to third on Royster's surprise sacrifice bunt in the second. "This was no time to be a hero; I know if we get him to third we don't need a hit to score him," said Royster. Hubbard singled in Harper anyway. And in the ninth, Royster went from second to third on a medium fly and was driven in by a Watson single.