The Atlanta Braves got close enough to winning Game 1 of the World Series that they could almost feel it. They outplayed the New York Yankees for seven innings and had a one-run lead on the scoreboard, a four-time Cy Young Award winner on the mound and the energy of 51,342 fans in the stands.
The Braves almost always win this kind of game. If only they weren't playing the Yankees on this enormous stage with the stakes so high and the tension level cranked up. Pushed to the edge, the Yankees rallied for four runs in the eighth inning and defeated the Braves, 4-1, on a 49-degree night at Turner Field.
Paul O'Neill's bases-loaded single against reliever John Rocker drove in two runs, gave the Yankees the lead and got them started toward their third championship in four years and their 25th of the 20th century.
"If we're in a close game, and we get an opportunity, we know we can win a game," New York's Darryl Strawberry said. "It's just about confidence. We've got a very experienced ballclub and we don't panic and that's a very big key for us."
O'Neill got the biggest hit in an inning in which the Yankees sent 10 men to the plate, got three hits and three walks and took advantage of two errors by first baseman Brian Hunter. For the previous seven innings four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux had outdueled Yankees starter Orlando Hernandez.
In the end, the Yankees did what they almost always do. They got some key hits and made some key plays and took advantage of two misplays by Hunter, who had been inserted as a defensive replacement for Ryan Klesko. That's why they have won 19 of their last 22 postseason games and have outscored opponents 22-5 after the sixth inning in the postseason this year.
"It didn't surprise us when we got a little crack," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said. "We've been a very patient ball club."
The Yankees didn't need a lot of offense as Hernandez and three relievers combined on a two-hitter. Hernandez ran his career postseason record to 5-0 by yielding one run in seven innings and striking out 10. He baffled the Braves with his assortment of speeds and arm angles and with the high leg kick that hides the ball so well.
"He continues to make you shake your head," Torre said. "He was sharp from the get-go. He took control early, as did Maddux."
The Braves got a home run from Chipper Jones in the fourth inning but didn't get another runner past first base against Hernandez. That run wasn't enough in a game in which their defense allowed two unearned runs.
"The guy [Hernandez] throws a lot of arms and legs at you," Braves second baseman Bret Boone said. "He kept the fastball down, and when he threw it up, it was way up. We're not used to seeing a guy who hides the ball as well as he does."
The Braves should be thankful they can come back to the ballpark Sunday and play another game because this is the kind of defeat that can leave a bitter taste. Maddux, who got the start when scheduled starter Tom Glavine became ill with flu-like symptoms Friday night, lost despite seven terrific innings when he was charged with two unearned runs.
Maddux had the Yankees off-balance all night, but when Scott Brosius led off the eighth with his third single, the Braves were in trouble. Pinch hitter Strawberry then worked Maddux for a walk that left the Braves furious at home plate umpire Randy Marsh.
"I thought he was as good tonight as he'd ever been," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said of Maddux. "He had plenty to go into the ninth inning."
Braves catcher Eddie Perez added: "I thought Maddux was going to finish that game for us. They just put together some base hits. They didn't hit the ball well against him. And don't ask me about the umpire."
With Yankees on first and second, second baseman Chuck Knoblauch pushed a beautiful bunt between the mound and first base. Hunter rushed in, picked up the ball and bobbled it for an error, allowing Knoblauch to reach first and load the bases.
"That was a great bunt," Maddux said.
Cox added: "I think he just put it in the right place."
Jeter singled to left to score Brosius with the tying run. Cox went for his lefty closer, Rocker, to face O'Neill, who hit just .190 against left-handed pitching in the regular season.
O'Neill didn't hit Rocker's 96 mph fastball hard, but with the infield playing close for a plate at the plate, he slapped it just out of the reach of second baseman Boone. Pinch-runner Chad Curtis and Knoblauch scored to make it 3-1, and Jeter and O'Neill moved up when Hunter was charged with another error on a bad throw.
The last time a first baseman made two errors in an inning in a World Series game was 1958. That player was Milwaukee's Frank Torre--the brother of the Yankees manager.
Rocker intentionally walked Bernie Williams, got two outs, then walked pinch hitter Jim Leyritz to force in Jeter with the fourth run.
At that point, the Braves were beaten. Torre used Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton to get the first two outs in the eighth, then brought in closer Mariano Rivera for the final four outs.
"It was the kind of game we anticipated it would be," Torre said. "I'm just glad we were able to break through in the eighth."