ATLANTA, OCT. 25 -- Talk about deja vu. Here it was another October, another World Series, another Game 6. Here was Charlie Leibrandt once again giving up the game-winning hit in the 11th inning. Here were the Atlanta Braves chopped down again by one fateful cut.
Last year Minnesota's Kirby Puckett hit a home run to beat the left-handed Leibrandt and force a Game 7, which was won by the Twins. This time Toronto's Dave Winfield hammered Leibrandt for a two-run double between third baseman Terry Pendleton and the line. It gave the Blue Jays just enough for a 4-3 victory to win the Series after they cut short the Braves' rally in the bottom of the 11th.
"You can't blame him this year," said a glum-looking Braves Manager Bobby Cox early this morning after the 4-hour 7-minute struggle. "He got a ground ball that just happened to get through. You can't ask for any more than a ground ball."
The saddest sight in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was Jeff Reardon, standing in the Braves' bullpen watching, ignored when a right-handed reliever was needed to face the right-handed hitting Winfield. But Cox no longer trusted Reardon, baseball's all-time saves leader.
"I went with Charlie because he gets right-handers out," contended Cox, as if Leibrandt had gotten Puckett out last year. "I felt confident he could get Winfield out."
But Reardon would have been in there if Cox still believed in the 37-year-old. But Reardon had served up enough reasons not to: the Game 2 ninth-inning pinch homer by Ed Sprague that dramatically turned the Series in the Blue Jays' favor, and the Game 3 winning hit by Candy Maldonado in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and one out.
In this 89th World Series, the Blue Jays hit the long ball and the Braves didn't. But the bullpens may have been an even bigger difference. The Toronto press has made Cito Gaston the most criticized manager in baseball, almost daily pointing out some deficiency, real or imagined, in his knowledge of the game. But Gaston knows two ways to spell relief: Duane Ward and Tom Henke.
Ward picked up two victories in the Series and Henke added two saves. And when Henke disappointed in the final game, allowing the Braves to tie in the ninth inning, Gaston wheeled in Game 4 winner Jimmy Key for another 1 1/3 innings of relief. Then Gaston went for his seventh pitcher, Mike Timlin, for the game's final out, a heart-stopper.
Timlin, maintaining his composure, threw out Otis Nixon attempting to get the tying run home from third with a surprise bunt. As Leibrandt, now 0-4 lifetime in World Series, put it, "We've got a pretty good team. Toronto's just a little better. They were just a little bit better when they had to be."
The Blue Jays hung on in a tension-filled bottom of the ninth too, when the Braves sensed a comeback against Henke. Francisco Cabrera, who had won the National League pennant with his ninth-inning, two-out hit in Game 7 against Pittsburgh, nailed a line drive to left that Maldonado barely managed to catch with a leap. An inch or two higher and it could have scored the two runners and won the game.
So close. So frustrating. Losing in the 10th inning of the seventh game last year. Now rallying for a run in the bottom of the 11th, moving the tying run to third, asking Nixon to deliver again. He almost did. The bunt came as a shocker. Pinch-runner John Smoltz would have scored easily. But Timlin fielded the ball cleanly and threw perfectly to first to nip Nixon.
Nixon was bunting on his own, but Cox had no problem with that. "I don't fault him for it," Cox said. "It's a good weapon."
One of the ironies of the Series was how well Deion Sanders played while causing so many distractions when he didn't. Sanders collected eight hits in 15 at-bats for a .533 average; only Billy Hatcher, Babe Ruth and Chris Sabo in the history of the World Series hit for a higher average. Sanders also stole four bases, and in Game 6 threw out Pat Borders with a sensational throw from left field.
Yet Sanders's behavior subtracted from his play and stirred tensions among teammates. It began during the League Championship Series when Sanders suited up on Oct. 11 for both the Atlanta Falcons and Braves. Braves' General Manager John Schuerholz criticized Sanders for not devoting "full-time" to baseball, and Sanders fired back with a blast in the media. Then Sanders and teammate David Justice reportedly had words after Sanders threw water on CBS commentator Tim McCarver. Justice's fiancee, actress Halle Berry, who happened to be in the room, also got wet, which irritated Justice.
The Braves grew edgier when they stopped hitting and lost three straight one-run games to Toronto. At a news conference in Toronto, Sid Bream declared that several players didn't have the right "mindset." Justice told an Atlanta radio station that the Braves didn't seem to want to win as badly as the Blue Jays.
Cox called a team meeting before Game 5, and later told Bream and Justice that he didn't appreciate their remarks.
As for bruised feelings, Nixon said, "Any time you're with a ball club from the early part of February to this time of year, you've got so many guys with different make-ups that this can happen now and then to the best of clubs.
"Not to have a little argument here, or somebody's not on time, somebody steps on your foot or something like that, that happens during the course of the year. We're a close team. If a temper flares now and then, it sticks out a little bit more than normal."
Despite their problems, the Braves came close. It was fitting that the Series ended on a close play that went against them. "I couldn't get the bunt where I wanted it," Nixon said. "I wanted to hit it a little harder down the first base line so Joe Carter could field it. I didn't think he could beat me to the bag. I just didn't get it where I wanted to."