Brett Butler watched the ball come off Ken Oberkfell's bat in the ninth inning tonight and thought he could run it down.
But as the Atlanta Braves' center fielder raced back, the ball kept rising. When he leaped, it was beyond the reach of his glove, and the Cardinals had the winning run and a 2-0 lead in the National League championship series.
Oberkfell's one-out liner to right center soared "about a foot over Brett's glove," said Atlanta right fielder Claudell Washington. When the ball landed, David Green was running home from second base with the run that gave St. Louis a 4-3 victory.
The crowd of 53,408 showed its approval as they sent the Cardinals off to Atlanta for the completion of the best-of-five series.
The Cardinals trailed, 3-2, in the eighth inning against the Braves' sinker-ball reliever, Gene Garber, who replaced 43-year-old knuckleballer Phil Niekro after six innings. Garber, holding a one-run lead, retired the side in order in the seventh.
But in the eighth, Garber walked Darrell Porter and George Hendrick's single sent him to third. Porter scored the tying run on Willie McGee's grounder to second base.
It then came down to the relievers, with sinker-baller Bruce Sutter for the Cards and Garber for the Braves. Sutter was the winner, allowing no runners in stopping Atlanta in the eighth and ninth.
In the ninth, Garber yielded a leadoff single to Green, who came in for defensive purposes at the same time as Sutter and was batting in the pitcher's spot. Tommy Herr sacrificed Green to second base before Oberkfell batted.
With first base open, the Braves could have walked Oberkfell, a left-handed hitter who was six for 10 lifetime against Garber. But Dane Iorg, a good hitter, was available to bat for Sutter, due next, after whom Garber would have to face cleanup man Keith Hernandez.
Atlanta Manager Joe Torre drew his outfielders in to cut off the run at the plate in the event of a short single. Garber got one strike on Oberkfell and then fed him a high, inside fast ball that the third baseman hit to right center. "When I hit it, I didn't think he (Butler) had a chance," Oberkfell said. "But then I thought, 'He's fast.'
"When I saw it hit the ground I was pretty happy. It was my biggest RBI ever."
The Braves face the same situation the Milwaukee Brewers faced two days ago -- going home trailing, 0-2, in a five-game series. Like Milwaukee, they hope they can even the series, and Herzog was the first to draw the parallel. "You saw what happened in the other league," he said. "Let's just hope Joaquin goes out and gets 'em."
Joaquin is Joaquin Andujar, the righthander who started the rained-out first game of this series Wednesday and gave up one run in five innings. He will face Rick Camp, 11-13 with a 3.65 ERA, in Game 3 Sunday (WJLA-TV-7, 8:15).
Today's Cardinal victory spoiled another fine performance from Niekro, who pitched after only two days' rest (he had faced Andujar in the opener). He had control trouble early tonight, walking four and giving up one run in the first four innings, but was in command until the sixth, when he gave up four hits and the second run.
"If he can get the knuckler over, he's just about unbeatable," said Torre before the game. "If he can't, he really has to work hard."
Niekro was spared worse damage when Porter was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple with no one out. "I broke the cardinal rule of baseball that time," said Porter. "I just wasn't thinking."
The Braves went down meekly before rookie John Stuper the first two innings, but in the third profited from a horrendous error and took a 2-1 lead.
Stuper, like Niekro, walked the leadoff man to start his trouble. Catcher Bruce Benedict advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. With two out, Rafael Ramirez singled to center and McGee, racing in to get the ball and make the throw home on Benedict, missed the ball entirely. It trickled to the warning track in center field with three Cardinals in hot pursuit.
Benedict scored and Ramirez never slowed down. He came home easily with the second run on the three-base error by McGee.
It was rookie McGee's second glaring mistake in the series. In the first game, he failed to run home when his hit to right eluded Washington. He wound up on third base when the ball was still bouncing around the outfield, but later scored on a sacrifice fly in that 7-0 Cardinal victory.
The Braves, with owner Ted Turner watching from the third-base VIP boxes, increased the lead to 3-1 in the fifth inning. Glenn Hubbard opened with a single, went to third on Benedict's cue-shot looper down the right-field line that hopped over the fence for a ground-rule double and scored on Niekro's long sacrifice fly to left.
Porter was two for two with two walks, an RBI and a run scored. He said Niekro's knuckler was moving around even better than on Wednesday. Maybe too well, said Porter. "He had trouble controlling it."
All this is pertinent because Torre has said he might call on Niekro to start one more time if this series goes the full five games. That would put have him pitching Tuesday, with two days' rest again.