ATLANTA - An October of great expectations has taken a chilly turn for the worse for the Atlanta Braves.
An easy roll through the playoffs to another World Series no longer seems a certainty. Four and out for the St. Louis Cardinals?
If the Braves didn't already realize this year's ride through the National League Championship Series isn't going to be easy, they do now.
Taking advantage of a pair of errors Thursday night, the Cardinals strolled to an 8-3 victory in Game 2 before a sellout crowd of 52,067 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, sending the series to St. Louis tied at one game apiece.
This one featured a pitching matchup that appeared a mismatch. Greg Maddux had not lost to the Cardinals since 1994, winning six straight decisions with an 0.79 ERA since then. On the flip side, Cards starter Todd Stottlemyre had lost all three of his starts to the Braves this season and had allowed an average of four runs per game.
In addition, the Braves had won eight straight postseason games at home and had won 15 of their last 18 October contests.
Maddux deserved a better fate. He went 6 innings and gave up nine hits and eight runs, only three earned. His biggest mistake came in the seventh when the Cards loaded the bases and Gary Gaetti broke open a tight game with a grand slam over the left field wall.
In three starts against the Cardinals this season, a total of 23 innings, Maddux yielded two earned runs. He exceeded that total in three innings, though he left a trail of splinters in his wake.
The Cardinals were helped to a 1-0 lead in the first inning by Marquis Grissom's error on Ron Gant's single and added a pair of runs in the third on broken-bat doubles by Gant and Brian Jordan.
Maddux did everything right, spotting his fastball and changeup well while not issuing a walk, yet found himself trailing 3-0 because of a couple of well-placed bloop hits.
That was all the Cards got against him until the seventh. Maddux kept the ball on the ground the next three innings, getting every out except two by ground ball or strikeout.
In the seventh, Mike Gallego shot a line drive back through the box that almost caught Maddux in the face. Then pinch hitter Mark Sweeney popped up a bunt and the game turned on the play.
Third baseman Chipper Jones dived and trapped the ball, got to his feet and threw wildly past first base, allowing the runners to reach second and third. A walk to Royce Clayton filled the bases and Ray Lankford's sacrifice fly sent the go-ahead run across the plate.
Maddux almost escaped the inning. He struck out Gant for a second out but intentionally walked Jordan to reload the bases. Wrong choice. Gaetti hit his first pitch over the left field wall, the fifth grand slam in NLCS history, boosting the Cards to an 8-3 lead.
Stottlemyre lost all three starts against the Braves this year with an earned run average of 4.09 but set down the first six hitters he faced with three strikeouts.
The right-hander made a pair of mistakes in the third, the first a leadoff walk to Eddie Perez and a hanging curve to Grissom a few minutes later. Grissom, 2-for-17 in this postseason, carved a chunk from the Cards' lead with a two-run homer into the left field stands.
The Braves finally began to take the measure of Stottlemyre in the sixth. Having shown little patience against him in five innings, they began to take some pitches and the results showed immediately. Grissom led with a single, Mark Lemke drew a walk and Fred McGriff accepted another with one out, loading the bases for Ryan Klesko.
Klesko's single tied the game, but the Braves failed to capitalize further. Rookie Jermaine Dye swung at the first pitch he saw from Stottlemyre and popped out weakly. Then pinch hitter Terry Pendleton struck out, leaving the bases loaded.
It was a missed opportunity that would haunt the Braves.
ATLANTA - In less than a month, Steve Avery will become a free agent, which means he may already have made his last start in a Braves uniform.
It's something he's thought about, though not for very long.
"I'm not a real sentimental guy," he said.
Avery hopes to stay with the Braves and said Thursday he would give up free agency for a year and sign a one-year deal to remain in Atlanta. The question is, are the Braves willing to add his $4.2 million salary to the league's largest payroll?
"I think there will be interest in me, but my first choice is to stay here," Avery said. "I can't even give you a second choice. I don't know if they feel they want to keep me or if I should take less money. I'm not going to say I'll take a pay cut here when I can get a healthy raise somewhere else."
Despite three straight mediocre seasons during which his earned run average has been above 4.00, Avery will undoubtedly have many suitors this winter. Knowing they have advantage because he wants to stay, the Braves will probably make him an offer, though at less money than he made this year.
"I haven't given them much reason to want to keep me," Avery admitted. "I haven't made it easy on them. But I'm not just another left-hander. I'm a good pitcher. Somebody is going to make out all right next year."
CHIPPER'S KEY: Chipper Jones hit .179 over the last 10 games of the season, then went hitless in the first two games of the division series before hitting a home run in Game 3. He continued to break out of his slump with four hits Wednesday night, though one was an infield hit and another was a bunt.
"I did things (Wednesday night) at the plate that were fundamentally correct," Jones said. "I went with outside pitches and stayed on top of them. Usually, I'm popping them up or topping them when I'm going bad. I found that happy medium."
NEAGLE'S TURN: Denny Neagle has been told he'll start Game 4 in St. Louis Sunday, though manager Bobby Cox may change his mind and come back with John Smoltz on three days rest. Cox would only do it if the Braves lost Games 2 and 3, which seemed doubtful with Greg Maddux working Thursday's game and Tom Glavine going to the mound Saturday.
"This is what I've been looking forward to for the last few years," Neagle said. "The butterflies have already started. I've been a nervous wreck sitting down in the bullpen."
Neagle has warmed up in the bullpen in every game of the postseason without making an appearance. By the time he finally gets to the mound Sunday, he won't have made a start in nearly three weeks. His last start was forgettable, a Sept. 26 outing against the Marlins in which he gave up seven earned runs in 4 innings.
Neagle's postseason experience is rather limited. He made two relief appearances against the Braves in the 1992 NLCS while with the Pirates and allowed four hits and five runs in only 1 innings.
"Before I was a no-name and now it's different," he said. "There's a little more pressure, but whenever you compete in the postseason there's pressure. If you put pressure on yourself, you just make it worse." ...
Having swept the Reds in the NLCS last season and 4-2 winners of Game 1, the Braves headed into Thursday's Game 2 riding a five-game winning streak in NLCS play. The only National League team to win six straight was the 1975-76 Reds, who swept the Pirates 3-0 in 1975 and the Phillies 3-0 in 1976.
The overall record for consecutive victories in the LCS is 10, set by the Orioles in 1969-71 and 1973.
ATLANTA - During his three seasons as an Atlanta Falcons safety, Brian Jordan often complained that he didn't get the respect he deserved.
Five years removed from his NFL career, Jordan is singing the same song with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Jordan couldn't contain his disappointment Thursday when asked about being passed over for a Gold Glove award a day earlier. The outfield honors in the National League went to Atlanta's Marquis Grissom, San Francisco's Barry Bonds and San Diego's Steve Finley.
"It's very disappointing because for the last year and a half I feel that I've played exceptional defense," Jordan said before Game 2 of the National League Championship Series against the Braves. "I don't want to say anything bad about Barry Bonds, but I've seen on ESPN where he's dropped routine fly balls.
"I think it's a popularity contest, really, if you look at who wins every year."
Jordan made only two errors in 320 total chances during the regular season, third best in the NL. He also had nine outfield assists, just one fewer than Grissom and Bonds.
Asked what a Gold Glove would mean to him, Jordan said, "It would mean a lot because I pride myself on my defense, and I feel it's the best it's ever been. I told my dad I can't play better defense than I did this year."
BUSCH-WHACKED: The Cardinals could be at a psychological disadvantage going home for Game 3 Saturday. Atlanta won all six games played at Busch Stadium this year.
"We didn't play well in those games," catcher Tom Pagnozzi said. "The first time we played them at home, we were struggling. The way I look at it is that everybody starts off 0-0 at home when the (postseason) starts. Ideally, you would have liked to have beaten up on them at home, but we haven't. So really, that's a motivating factor."
Said manager Tony La Russa, "To me, when I think motivating, it means, gee whiz, I need a little help getting ready. I hope that's not what he means. I think it just adds to the challenge. I don't think our club will have any problem being ready to play in front of our fans on Saturday."
BUNTS: La Russa said Andy Benes will pitch Game 4 on Sunday no matter what happens before then. Benes pitched six strong innings in Game 1, allowing a pair of runs on a two-run Mark Lemke single. Mark Petkovsek was tagged with the loss in the Braves' 4-2 victory. ... La Russa had a brief fling with the Braves as a player at the end of the 1971 season. "I've never been so embarrassed," La Russa said. "I was traded here for a player to be named later. I got into a few games and went 2-for-7. They got me because their second baseman (Felix Millan) was a little banged up." Atlanta never received the "player to be named later." "(Owner Charlie) Finley told the Braves, `The kind of player he was, don't worry about it.'," La Russa said.