Marlins 2, Braves 1
MIAMI (AP) _ Maybe it was meant to be for Livan Hernandez and the Florida Marlins all along.
How else to explain what happened in the NL championship series?
Hernandez pitched one of the great games in postseason history, striking out an NLCS record 15 and allowing just three hits as the Marlins beat Greg Maddux and the Atlanta Braves 2-1 Sunday for a 3-2 lead.
Starting only because of Alex Fernandez’s torn rotator cuff and Kevin Brown’s viral infection, Hernandez added the latest twists to a series full of odd turns. In his first start since Sept. 27, the 22-year-old rookie retired 17 of the last 18 batters, throwing a called third strike past Fred McGriff to end the game.
``I’d like to say I expected this,″ Marlins manager Jim Leyland said. ``But I don’t think there’s a person in this room, in the stands or in the world that expected this.″
Jeff Conine, the lone player left from Florida’s first game in 1993, hit a go-ahead single in the seventh inning that moved the 5-season-old Marlins within one win of becoming the fastest team to reach the World Series.
The Braves, meanwhile, find themselves in familiar territory. Atlanta rallied to win the final three games of the 1996 NLCS, including the last two at home, to overtake St. Louis in seven games.
Leyland is well aware of Atlanta’s playoff comebacks. The Braves overcame a 3-2 deficit to beat Leyland’s Pittsburgh team in the 1991 NLCS, and beat Leyland’s Pirates in Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS.
Game 6 will be Tuesday night at Turner Field. Tom Glavine, the winner in Game 2, will oppose Brown, the Game 1 winner.
Already, though, this Braves-Marlins matchup has turned into one of the most topsy-turvy playoff matchups ever. Not since the 1976 ALCS had teams alternated wins for the first five games of a postseason series.
Hernandez, wearing No. 32 on his hat in tribute to Fernandez, pitched out of a first-inning jam and walked two. The 15 strikeouts broke the NLCS record shared by Mike Scott and John Candelaria.
Hernandez took advantage of plate umpire Eric Gregg’s wide strike zone, as did Maddux.
Mike Mussina fanned 15 _ two short of Bob Gibson’s postseason record _ for Baltimore in the ALCS on Saturday at Cleveland.
Maddux, the victim of five unearned runs in the opener, lost again because of a ball that was not caught, albeit it involved a difficult play.
Bobby Bonilla opened the seventh with a drive to deep right that snow-coned in Michael Tucker’s glove as he crashed into the wall. The ball popped loose, as did one of Tucker’s contact lenses, and Bonilla wound up with a double.
There was an eight-minute delay while Tucker and others looked for the elusive lens. Tucker eventually left the game and, when it resumed, Conine singled up the middle on Maddux’s first pitch, stopping an 0-for-13 slide in the series.
Maddux struck out nine in seven innings, allowing four hits. Still, he fell to 8-7 in 17 career postseason starts.
The 25 strikeouts by both teams was a record for a league championship series game.
Hernandez, who won Game 3, ran into immediate trouble when Kenny Lofton tripled on the second pitch of the game. Bonilla briefly visited Hernandez when he then fell behind in the count of Keith Lockhart, who walked.
``I wanted to make sure he wasn’t being too careful,″ Bonilla said.
But Hernandez showed October skill beyond his years to escape the jam, striking out Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff and Ryan Klesko in succession. He did it by relying on backdoor sliders and offspeed stuff, rather than overthrowing his fastball, a common mistake by young pitchers.
Maddux, baseball’s best control pitcher, quickly put himself in a first-inning problem. He hit leadoff man Devon White in the right leg with an 0-2 delivery, though Maddux and Braves manager Bobby Cox argued to Gregg that White moved into the pitch.
White, obviously not hurt too badly, was running on the next pitch and credited with a steal when Maddux’s fastball went wildly to the backstop. One out later, Bonilla reached low-and-away and lined an RBI single to center, a hit that prompted Maddux to shout at himself as he ran to back up the play.
Michael Tucker tied it at 1 when he homered to dead center off Hernandez to start the second.
Notes: Klesko’s popup in the fourth caused a bit of confusion for the umpires. Third base ump Charlie Williams signaled foul just as left-field ump Mike Winters pointed fair. It didn’t matter because shortstop Edgar Renteria caught the ball, which officially was ruled foul. ... Chipper Jones was hit in the head by a fly ball in batting practice. The Atlanta third baseman was checked in the clubhouse, and returned for practice. ... Hernandez was ruled out by Gregg for stepping out of the batter’s box while fouling a pitch in the fifth.