It ended 35 hits and 23 runs later, with Dale Murphy driving a one-out 10th-inning single to right-center to score Claudell Washington from second with the run that gave the Atlanta Braves a 12-11 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers tonight in Fulton County Stadium.
But on a mild night in Georgia when seven home runs were hit and when the pitching lines of 10 pitchers read like epitaphs, only one number mattered: one-half.
That is the lead the Atlanta Braves now have over the Dodgers in the National League West. The Braves, who have not won a division title since 1969, have 23 games remaining. The Dodgers, winners of the NL West four out of the last eight years, have 22 left.
And the sheer daffiness of it all continues.
"If we had lost," said Braves first baseman Chris Chambliss, "it would have been bad news. The season is now."
Steve Garvey, the Dodger first baseman who hit his 15th home run, a three-run shot that gave the Dodgers an 11-10 lead in the sixth, said simply, "The game reminds me of none I've ever played in."
For these two teams, who have engaged in scoreboard watching for the past two months, tonight's game made the scoreboard do flips.
Phil Niekro, the Atlanta starter, looked more like a man who has celebrated 43 birthdays than 253 career victories. In 4 2/3 innings, Niekro gave up 11 hits, seven earned runs and three home runs. Afterward, the silver-haired veteran, who is the only Atlanta player to have braved the the 1969 title and the 12 succeeding years of nonsuccess, said with a smile, "And I would have thought eight runs would have been enough."
Follow the breakdown of scoring and you get into the crazed and confused web of the game and the race:
The Dodgers led, 1-0, after four pitches, when Dusty Baker singled home from second Steve Sax, who had singled.
In the bottom of the first, Bob Horner hit a three-run homer to left-center, his 29th of the year, to give the Braves a 3-1 lead. The homer was hit off Bob Welch, whose record was a glossy 15-10 entering the game, but whose record for the night was miserable: 3 2/3 innings, eight hits, eight earned runs and three home runs.
Then Sax hit a three-run homer (No. 3) in the second and Pedro Guerrero hit a run-scoring single in the third and the Dodgers led, 5-3.
Then, Murphy hit homer No. 34, a two-run job to right, in the bottom of the third and it was 5-5. In the fourth, Washington, who had five hits tonight, hit a three-run homer (No. 14), and the Braves led, 8-5.
Add craziness: in the fifth the three-run Atlanta lead left along with Niekro. The Dodgers tied the score, 8-8, in the top of the fifth when Baker hit a solo homer to left (No. 22) and Mike Scioscia hit a two-run double to right off reliever Bob Walk.
The Braves scored two in the bottom of the fifth to take a 10-8 lead. With runners on first and second with one out, Glenn Hubbard's sacrifice bunt was thrown down the left field line into the Dodgers' bullpen by Scioscia, scoring one run. Pinch hitter Bob Watson followed with a sacrifice fly to score the second run.
Garvey's homer in the sixth made it 11-10. Washington's run-scoring single in the seventh tied the game at 11.
Then, Murphy followed with his single in the 10th off Steve Howe (6-4), who had entered in the 10th. It made a winner of Gene Garber (7-8), who pitched three scoreless innings.
It was a crazy way to open a two-game series and keep burning the furious fire in the west.
Atlanta owner Ted Turner exchanged high fives on the field when it was over and a disappointing, but not disappointed, crowd of 24,583 stood cheering.
The only number to consider was this: one-half. It is only a fraction, but it is current, the whole story of the NL West.