In the year when the Atlanta Braves showed that the last really shall be first, it only figured that in their most crucial game a child would lead them. Steve Avery, a product of the 1970s and the youngest player in the ballpark Thursday night, turned in the performance of a lifetime. The 21-year-old left-hander limited the Pittsburgh Pirates to six hits through 8 innings as the Braves scored a 1-0 victory and evened the National League playoffs at one game apiece.
The best-of-seven baseball series takes a break today and resumes Saturday afternoon in Atlanta. Pittsburgh 20-game winner John Smiley will face John Smoltz.
Avery was overpowering from the start. He spaced the six hits, allowed only three runners past second base, and struck out nine. He came into the game with a 5-0 mark in his past eight starts (including two key wins over the Dodgers). He might have even been better Thursday night.
"He was as good as I've seen this year," said Pittsburgh's Jay Bell, who managed an infield single and struck out twice in four at-bats. "He had all three pitches working, and he made the pitches when he had to. He was throwing super baseball."
"We could have been out there two more hours and not scored off him," said Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland.
Avery hardly seemed intimidated by the surroundings, the Pittsburgh record crowd of 57,533, or the significance of the game.
"I was just having fun," Avery said. "How can you not enjoy having 100-million people watching you."
Pittsburgh's Andy Van Slyke was asked whether Avery ever looked rattled.
"He's young enough to almost have a rattle, that's about it," Van Slyke said. "His poise, and what he did out there, was remarkable _ especially for a 21-year-old."
"He threw extremely well, he was on the money, and he had a lot of confidence in every pitch he threw," Pittsburgh's Bobby Bonilla said. "What can you do except look forward to the off day."
The Pirates are in a similar uncomfortable position to last year, winning the first game of the series and losing the second. And now they have to go to Atlanta, where they are winless in six games this season and where a crazed legion of tomahawk-chopping fans await.
"We've got to win in Atlanta and we haven't all year," Leyland said. "But it's a new season. We'll continue to play. We knew we had to win one or two in Atlanta anyway, as I'm sure they felt they had to win here. There was just too much Avery tonight."
The Braves scored the game's only run in the sixth inning, thanks to some aggressive baserunning and a helpful bounce.
David Justice led off with a single to center and, an out later, was running on a 2-0 pitch to Greg Olson and was able to avoid the double play when Olson grounded to short. Mark Lemke hit a bouncer that arrived at third base the same time as a sliding Justice and Steve Buechele, the Pittsburgh third baseman.
Buechele was playing to tag Justice but missed the ball. It bounced through for a double, and Justice raced home.
"If it takes any kind of a reasonable hop, I make the play," Buechele said. "Looking back, I would try it again. That was the only play I had."
Pittsburgh threatened twice in the closing innings.
Gary Redus singled with two outs in the eighth and stole second. Jay Bell hit a grounder up the middle, but second baseman Lemke saved a run with a diving backhand stop. Avery then got Game 1 hero Van Slyke on a grounder to shortstop.
Bonilla hit Avery's second pitch of the ninth off the leftfield wall on one bounce for a double, but Avery again responded, inducing Barry Bonds (1-for-6 in the series) to pop up to shortstop. Avery gave way to Alejandro Pena. After throwing a wild pitch that advanced Bonilla to third, Pena got Buechele on a tapper back to the mound for the second out, then struck out pinch-hitter Curtis Wilkerson _ looking _ to end the game. It was the 12th save in 12 opportunities for Pena since he joined the team, Aug. 29.
Avery, the youngest pitcher to start a playoff game since Kansas City sent 20-year-old Bret Saberhagen to the mound in 1984, was 18-8 during the season, 5-0 in his past eight starts with a 2.14 ERA, and had beaten the Pirates twice in three starts during the season.
Game 2: Braves 1, Pirates 0. Series tied at 1-1.
Game 3: Pirates at Braves, 3 p.m. Saturday on Ch. 13.
Pitchers: Pittsburgh left-hander John Smiley (20-8, 3.08 ERA) vs. Atlanta right-hander John Smoltz (14-3, 3.80).
The Braves' 21-year-old ace helps his team even the NL playoff series, with ninth-inning relief from Alejandro Pena.