PITTSBURGH -- Sometimes, a single time at bat -- one total baseball play -- tells you all you need to know, or at least all you want to remember, about an entire playoff.
When Bobby Bonilla, the biggest of the Pirates' "Killer B's," waged his glorious war with Randy Myers, the meanest of the Reds' "Nasty Boys," this NLCS had its moment of encapsulated and permanent drama.
In time, especially if the Reds use the springboard of this 5-3 win (for a 3-1 lead in games) to reach the World Series, this game will be recalled simply for The Throw by Eric Davis.
However, Davis's heave -- Chris Sabo called it "a bullet from 300 feet" -- only ended an at-bat that miniaturized the whole war between well-matched but rapidly diverging foes. The Reds and their hellacious bullpen are pulling away from the Pirates sluggers -- on merit or by miracle, whichever the occasion demands.
With the Reds leading, 4-3, in the eighth inning, the Pirates had reached put-up-or-shut-up territory. Lose, and the march back would be long and improbable. Win, especially by coming from behind against the Reds' pluperfect pen, and they'd not only tie the series but switch its momentum as well.
Bonilla is as good as they make sluggers. He's 6 feet 3, weighs 230 solid pounds, drove in 120 runs with 32 homers and looks like a young Tony Perez. Except that Bonilla is bigger, stronger and a switch hitter.
Myers is as fast, mean and, let us say, "zany," as they make relievers. He claims to be able to kill a man with his bare hands in more than a hundred ways. However, he always kills rallies the same way: with a 95 mph fastball and a quick slider from his powerful left arm.
All playoff, the "Nasty Boys" have been as omnipresent as their poster. Myers and Rob Dibble, the nastiest of the firm, had gotten 20 outs without allowing a hit while striking out the majority of the poor Pirates (11) they'd faced.
By contrast, the Killer B's -- especially Bonilla and Barry Bonds, the best of the B batch -- had been conspicuous by their absence. As Bonilla stepped up, he'd had three singles in 14 at-bats with no RBI. On deck crouched Bonds, who'd had two singles in 13 at-bats and had looked pressure-strangled in several of them.
Gradually, Bonilla fought his way into the at-bat. With each pitch, he got a more perfect groove on Myers's pace.
"What a great at-bat," said Reds Manager Lou Piniella, a connoisseur of such matters.
Even in the press box, where details are often subsumed by deadlines, the typing stopped as the at-bat progressed. "That's five straight home run swings Bonilla's had," said one man as the count went full. Bonilla's foul balls weren't impressive -- little things straight or slightly to the side. But the swings were thrilling -- each viciously, fully extended and perfectly "on" Myers's pitches.
Myers wouldn't back off. Not with Bonds up next. His knee-high fastball came in and Bonilla sent it out as if it had been set on a tee. If the ball's trajectory had been a millimeter higher, the ball might have traveled 450 feet or more. Instead, it looked like a single as it passed Myers, and an out as it rose above second base. Only as the ball screamed at Billy Hatcher in dead center did it show enough contempt for gravity to raise the possibility of going over the 400-foot sign rather than through it.
"First, I wanted to keep it in the park," said Piniella. "It looked like he'd hit a 1-iron."
Hatcher tried to climb the wall. The ball tried to knock the yellow paint off the second zero in "400" -- maybe 18 inches from the top of the wall. And a tie game. A changed game. Perhaps even a new playoff.
Davis, the wraith they call Eric the Red, should not have been part of this play. It's a long way from left field to dead center. Not many outfielders hustle so fiercely to back up such plays far from home. But Davis had much to prove. He butchered a routine fly ball -- backpedaling, getting tangled, lunging clumsily -- in Game 1 to hand the Pirates their only victory.
If you want to know how far Davis ran, look for right fielder Paul O'Neill the next time you see the replay. He started out closer to Hatcher than Davis did. But O'Neill was barely within cellular phone range when Davis fielded the ball, whirled and threw.
If "throw" is an adequate verb.
Here in steel town, they'll say that Bonilla should have had a triple. A one-out triple. Forcing the Reds to pull in their infield. Against Bonds.
But he didn't.
"I think Bobby was just being real aggressive. With one out, it was a great play," said Pirates Manager Jim Leyland. "The throw was on the money. . . . Of course, you know about Eric's arm. . . .
At any rate, it's baseball at it's best. Davis's throw, on one long hop and merely perfect, beat Bonilla cleanly, although not by much.
"An unbelievable throw," said third baseman Sabo who perhaps had earned the right to be the applier of the tag by virtue of his tiebreaking two-run home run the previous inning. "I never saw the ball until the last second, until Bonilla slid. Then it was right there. We were very fortunate the ball didn't hit him."
The Pirates knew all along they would see far too much of Messrs. Myers and Dibble.
What they didn't expect was that the Reds' outfielders would start acting like they'd all had Roberto Clemente arm surgery to implant rocket launchers. First, it was O'Neill killing a rally in Game 2 with a long throw to third that helped save a 2-1 victory. Then, in the fourth inning in this game, it was Hatcher, the home run hero of Game 3, who showed off his arm, gunning down Sid Bream at home on a two-out single by Jose Lind.
No, that wasn't a Pirates mistake either. "You had to send Sid, with the pitcher up next and two out," Leyland said.
Right now, the graffiti is on the wall. It says those Nasty Boys named Myers and Dibble already have more saves than those Killer B's named Bonilla and Bonds have RBI: three to one.
This playoff also has one more crucial statistic -- one that is not officially kept.
Saves and squanders -- by an outfielder.
Eric Davis now has one of each.