ATLANTA - The magic of another October has left Atlanta Braves fans with this rather startling thought.
Maybe John Smoltz has a shot at 30 wins after all.
A pitcher who's lived a dream season and a team that's brought excitement back to late-night television combined for more playoff drama Wednesday night.
With a tomahawk-chopping crowd chanting `'Javy, Javy, Javy," Atlanta's Mr. October, Javier Lopez, delivered a two-run single in the eighth inning to send the Braves past the St. Louis Cardinals 4-2 in the opener of the National League Championship Series at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
How important is winning Game 1? Well, the winner of the opening game of the NLCS has gone on to the World Series 16 times.
The 48,686 fans on hand watched Smoltz deliver another postseason masterpiece. The right-hander took his 26th win by working eight innings and allowing five hits and two runs, improving his career postseason record to 7-1. Atlanta's offense produced nine hits, including an NLCS record-tying four by Chipper Jones, and two-run singles by Mark Lemke and Lopez.
Smoltz looked over the Cardinals lineup and picked Ron Gant and Brian Jordan as the two hitters who could hurt him the most. Sure enough, it was Jordan with a triple over Marquis Grissom's head leading off the second inning and moments later he scored the game's first run on a wild pitch.
As things turned out, Smoltz's wild pitch on his first offering to Gary Gaetti was huge. He struck out Gaetti, struck out John Mabry and finished off the inning with a called third strike on Tom Pagnozzi, leaving the wild pitch as the only thing standing between the Braves and a scoreless game.
Smoltz worked out of jam the next inning following pitcher Andy Benes' double and got himself in more trouble with a pair of two-out walks in the fifth. He escaped by forcing a pop fly from Ozzie Smith and didn't allow another runner to advance past first base until the seventh.
While Smoltz's only mistake was a wild pitch, Benes was flawless through four innings. He yielded only three singles, two to Chipper Jones, and his only spot of trouble was in the fourth. Jones' hit and another by Ryan Klesko with two outs put runners on the corners, but Javier Lopez ended the threat by bouncing into a fielder's choice.
Benes' ride ended in the fifth. Jeff Blauser singled and Grissom's two-out double off Ozzie Smith's glove brought Lemke to the plate with an opportunity to send the Braves in front. Lemke, a good fastball hitter, got a first-pitch fastball from the right-hander and lined a single into right-center field, scoring both runners and ending the Cardinals' scoreless streak of innings pitched in the NLCS at 26
The Cardinals tied the game in the seventh, an inning that began with Gaetti shattering his bat in sending a single into center field. Mabry followed with a hit-and-run hit and Pagnozzi sent the tying run across the plate with another single. Smoltz worked out of a two-on, no-out jam by coaxing flies from Luis Alicea and pinch hitter Willie McGee before forcing a grounder from Smith to end the rally.
ATLANTA - He's not exactly on cruise control during the season, but Braves catcher Javier Lopez admitted Wednesday that once the postseason starts, he turns his game up a notch.
"I put more effort into the playoffs because there's no tomorrow," he said. "I'll do anything to stop a ball at home plate and I think twice about every pitch I call. I don't want to make a mistake calling a pitch and I sit on the corners where I'm supposed to."
Lopez has made a habit of postseason heroics, hitting a three-run homer in the Braves' 6-2 win in Game 1 of the National League Championship last season, then snapped a 2-2 tie with a home run in Game 2 of the World Series against Cleveland's Dennis Martinez. In that game, he also picked off Manny Ramirez from first base, erasing the potential tying run as the Braves won 4-3.
Then, in Game 1 of the division series against the Dodgers last week, he hit a 10th-inning homer to give the Braves a 2-1 victory.
"I don't do anything all year, so I've got to look forward to doing something," Lopez said. "You never know what to expect in baseball. Just remember (Mark) Lemke in '91. Anybody can be a hero."
DAYS OFF: As they headed into Game 1 of the LCS Wednesday night, Ryan Klesko and Fred McGriff were hoping the three days off between series wouldn't mess up their swings.
"It's been awhile since we played," Klesko said. "You've just got to get yourself ready."
Said McGriff, "(The time off) might hurt a little bit. But it helps to come out here and hit in batting practice. You should be able to keep your swing."
TICKETS: Where is everybody? At game time Wednesday night, there were thousands of empty seats in center field at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, prompting Braves general manager John Schuerholz to admit he was surprised. Plenty of tickets remain for tonight's Game 2.
However, he added, "We knew this year with the vast amount of money people spent on the Olympics that there might not be much left over for other expenditures. We had our eyes wide open to that fact."
Olympic decathlon gold medalist Dan O'Brien threw out the ceremonial first pitch Wednesday night.
GOLD GLOVE: Greg Maddux ranks another World Series championship as his ultimate goal, but not far down his list is extending his streak of Gold Gloves. He did it again this season, winning his seventh straight, while center fielder Marquis Grissom won his fourth.
"I take pride in my fielding," Maddux said. "In spring training when we have fielding drills, I'm actually doing them. When you win something like this, it's a reward for doing things the right way."
In addition to the Gold Gloves, left-hander Tom Glavine won his third Silver Slugger award, signifying the best hitting pitcher in the league.
"We get paid to pitch, but more goes into being a good pitcher than being able to pitch," he said. "Winning the Silver Slugger is recognition that you can handle the bat a little bit."
The winningest managers in LCS history are going head to head. Bobby Cox is managing in the LCS for a sixth time with a 17-14 record, while Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa is also in his sixth LCS and has a 15-8 record.
The LCS record for managerial victories is 18 by Sparky Anderson and the record for the National League is 16, held by Tommy Lasorda. ...
With his first strikeout Wednesday night, John Smoltz set an LCS record for most strikeouts, breaking the mark of 46 held by Nolan Ryan and Jim Palmer. Smoltz also tied Steve Carlton's record with his eighth LCS start. ...
Lemke holds the NLCS record for most games with one club, appearing in 25 games with the Braves. All of Lemke's games have been at second base and the record holder at that position is Joe Morgan with 27 games. ...
Terry Pendleton is the NLCS record holder in games played (32) and at-bats (129). He ranks second on the all-time LCS in both categories, trailing Reggie Jackson (45 games, 163 at-bats).
LATE HIT: Cardinals right fielder Brian Jordan had a few more harsh words for his former team, the Atlanta Falcons. When asked if he gains any satisfaction from watching the struggles of an organization that turned its back on him after three standout seasons, Jordan just smiled.
"It doesn't surprise me," he said. "They've let a lot of talent get away - Deion (Sanders), myself and others. It's a revolving door over there. They'll never be successful if they keep running a business the way they're running it."
TONY, TONY, TONY: First-year Cardinals manager Tony La Russa pinpoints late May as the team's launching point.
After struggling through injuries to outfielder Ron Gant and closer Dennis Eckersley, the Cardinals were 23-29 on Memorial Day. Since that time they have gone 68-45 (including the division series) for a winning percentage of .618.
"The first part of our team that excelled was the starting pitching," La Russa said. "They went through a long period there when they kept us in the game and that allowed the bullpen to do what bullpens do best, which is only get a few outs instead of running out there, night in and night out.
"Then the defense improved, the offense got hot and we cranked out a bunch of games."
Even so, it took the Cardinals until the end of June to climb above .500 for good.
"Right about the All-Star break, we really believed we had as good a shot to win as anybody in our division," La Russa said. "This team has been so much fun to watch. They never quit pushing from there to the end. This club has been like this all year. We're just excited about our chance to win. It just kept building and building and we just kept getting better and better."
BUNTS: Cardinals third baseman Gary Gaetti (bruised right heel, sprained right ankle) looked spry during infield practice and got the start. The 38-year-old has hit 58 home runs in his last two seasons after going six straight years without hitting more than 19 in a single season. ... Tony La Russa has the fifth-highest winning percentage (.528) among active major league managers. Only the Orioles' Davey Johnson (.572), the Expos Felipe Alou (.554), the Indians' Mike Hargrove (.543) and the Braves' Bobby Cox (.541) rank higher. ... Bobby Cox was asked if there were any fringe benefits to working for Braves owner Ted Turner. You know, like free cable? "No," Cox said with a laugh. "I've got a satellite up at the farm I have on this side of Chattanooga. I tried to get some free satellite (time), but I didn't succeed." ... Game 2 starter Greg Maddux on the Cardinals' balanced lineup: "They have guys who can hit for power, hit and run, steal a base. They do everything all the other teams do, but they might do those things a little better. They're a good team."
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