PHOENIX -- It was billed as the Duel in the Desert. The Little Professor (Greg Maddux) vs. the Big Unit (Randy Johnson). The man who hit 57 home runs (Luis Gonzalez) vs. the man who has 57 batting stances (Brian Jordan). It was an owner with money problems (Jerry Colangelo) vs. a billion-dollar owner (AOL Time-Warner).
In the end, it was Johnson refusing to yield to his postseason history, and the Arizona Diamondbacks displaying the instincts of a champion.
Now that the Diamondbacks have seized the advantage in the National League Championship Series with a 2-0 win over the Braves in Game 1 Tuesday afternoon at Bank One Ballpark, don't think for a moment that Arizona manager Bob Brenly ever fretted about not having Curt Schilling pitch the opener.
"We all know what Randy is capable of doing on a given day," Brenly said. "This was one of those given days. He went out and pitched like the Big Unit we've all come to know and love."
The Braves may still play in their sixth World Series in 11 years, but they will have to hold their offense accountable for Tuesday's detour. Using a 98 m.p.h fastball and an 87 m.p.h. slider almost exclusively, Johnson limited the Braves to three singles, Chipper Jones' first-inning liner that third baseman Matt Williams leaped and knocked down, and base hits by Julio Franco and Jones in the ninth.
"Assuming someone might say, is this a monkey off your back, this is more like King Kong," said Johnson, who had lost his last seven postseason starts. "I felt like I was going to continue to hear about this until I won a game. It's unfortunate, but I guess those are the expectations that are put on me when I go out there."
Said Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace, "Most people who talk about him not winning in the postseason don't have to grab a bat and face him."
Following Jones' single in the first, the Braves didn't have another baserunner until Bernard Gilkey walked in the eighth, and the only Atlanta runner to touch third all afternoon was pinch runner Jason Marquis in the ninth.
"The guy was flat-out awesome today," Jones said. "As good as I've ever seen him. He threw me a fastball I didn't even see. I looked up and (the scoreboard) said 99 m.p.h., and I said, no way that's 99.
"I was thinking in the sixth and seventh innings how close we were to having a perfect game pitched against us. He was just better than us today."
Said catcher Javy Lopez, "It's got to get easier after facing Randy Johnson."
The 6-foot-10 Johnson, who had three complete games during the regular season, came away with the second complete game of his playoff career. He threw 125 pitches, 87 for strikes, faced four batters over the minimum, struck out 11, and whiffed Brian Jordan for the second time with runners on first and third to end the game.
"I wanted to be in that position, a chance to win the game," Jordan said. "It's the best I've ever seen him pitch. He deserved to win."
Maddux will tell you a week off is a bonus, but the fact is his command early in the game suffered because of the layoff. Craig Counsell's soft single in the first inning was the only base hit among Arizona's four singles in two innings against the four-time Cy Young winner that wasn't a line drive.
And, as usual, careless defense cost the Braves dearly. Second baseman Marcus Giles' error on Luis Gonzalez's double play roller in the first was followed by Reggie Sanders' single that made it 1-0.
Counsell was a burr beneath Maddux's saddle again in the fifth, his two-out double just past center fielder Andruw Jones' dive setting up Gonzalez's run-scoring single.
"With the count 3-and-2, you make (Counsell) hit his way on, and he did," said Maddux, who has not won in his last nine starts, his longest streak without a victory since a 13-start drought in 1990. "Andruw almost made a great play. I thought he absolutely had no chance and he almost caught it."
Maddux, who equaled the league championship record with his 13th LCS start, allowed six hits and two walks in seven innings. It wasn't vintage Maddux, but it was a performance that deserved a better fate.
"I got out-pitched," he said. "(Johnson) threw a great game against us."
It took Johnson's dominating performance to beat the Braves, who now face the daunting prospect of defying recent history to advance to the World Series. The team that has won the first game in each of the last eight NLCS has played in the Series.
"I still like our chances," Chipper Jones said. "But the bottom line is we're down one to nothing."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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