The San Diego Padres, just an afterthought to many entering this postseason, are one victory away from a shocking sweep of the Team of the '90s and their first World Series in 14 years.
Sterling Hitchcock's gritty performance and clutch two-out RBI hits by Steve Finley and Ken Caminiti off Greg Maddux in the fifth inning carried the Padres to a 4-1 victory in the National League Championship Series over the Atlanta Braves Saturday afternoon.
No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the history of postseason play. The Padres, backed by a raucous crowd of 62,779 under a cloudless sky, will also be host to Game 4 Sunday afternoon and if necessary, Game 5 on Monday night.
"Whether or not you thought you'd be in this situation isn't important. We are," said Tony Gwynn, the only player left from San Diego's lone World Series team in 1984. "Of course you want to try to finish it off at home. But that's a quality club over there and it's not going to be easy."
Braves manager Bobby Cox said he "absolutely" thinks the Braves could come bac.
"It would be interesting if we win two here and go back to our place and win two," Cox said.
| Trevor Hoffman (left) and Carlos Hernandez celebrate after the final out of the Padres' 4-1 victory over the Braves in Game 3 of the NLCS. (AP) |
San Diego won the first two games at Atlanta's Turner Field. It was the first NLCS game in San Diego since 1984, when the Padres won three consecutive games here over the Chicago Cubs to reach their only World Series.
By comparison, the Braves are in their seventh consecutive NLCS and have gone to the World Series four times this decade, winning once.
San Diego can become just the second team in playoff history to eliminate two teams that won 100 games in the regular season. The Padres won the Division Series over Houston, which won a club-record 102 games, and the Braves won a franchise-record 106 games. The Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988 beat the New York Mets (100 victories) in the NLCS and the Oakland A's (104 wins) in the World Series.
The Game 4 scheduled starters are Atlanta left-hander Denny Neagle, who hasn't pitched since winning in relief in the second-to-last game of the regular season, and San Diego's Joey Hamilton, a Georgia native who made two relief appearances in the division series.
Hitchcock has pitched two of the biggest games in his career in the span of a week. He beat Randy Johnson and the Houston Astros 6-1 last Sunday as the Padres won the Division Series in four games, then beat Maddux, a four-time Cy Young Award winner.
"Obviously it wasn't as good as my last game, but I had just enough," said Hitchcock, who struck out 11 Astros on Sunday. "The team made some big plays behind me to help and gave me a lift."
"The Braves are a tough team who aren't hitting, but you still have to make quality pitches to them."
Hitchcock allowed one run and three hits in five-plus innings, struck out six and walked five. Maddux allowed two runs and five hits in five innings, his shortest postseason outing since lasting just 3 1/3 innings with the Cubs in 1989. He struck out three and walked two. Maddux has lost three straight NLCS starts and four of five.
| Greg Maddux (right) lost his third consecutive NLCS start as the Padres beat the Braves 4-1 on Sunday. (AP) |
"I hope I get a chance to pitch again," Maddux said. "You have to give their pitchers credit. They've thrown well against us."
Trevor Hoffman, the best closer in baseball this season, came on with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth and struck out pinch hitter Javy Lopez on three pitches. Hoffman blew the save in Game 1 in Atlanta but got the win.
Cox shook up his lineup, but it did little good. Braves batters were 0-for-5 with the bases loaded, including one-out situations in both the sixth and eighth innings. In all, the Braves left the bases loaded in three innings.
With the Padres trailing 1-0 and one out in the fifth, Hitchcock started the winning rally when he poked Maddux's first pitch just beyond the reach of diving shortstop Walt Weiss. With two outs, Finley doubled into the left-center gap to score Hitchcock. After Gwynn was intentionally walked, Caminiti singled up the middle to score Finley with the go-ahead run.
That brought the Padres leaping off the bench in their dugout and whipped up the crowd.
Caminiti's 10th-inning home run on Wednesday night gave San Diego a 3-2 victory in Game 1.
San Diego survived a tense bases-loaded situation in the sixth. Hitchcock walked Andres Galarraga and was relieved by Donne Wall. Andruw Jones singled, Maddux sacrificed and pinch hitter Ryan Klesko was intentionally walked. Wall then struck out pinch hitters Michael Tucker and Greg Colbrunn, hitting for Maddux.
The top of Atlanta's order finally produced a run when Weiss singled to center to score Tony Graffanino from second with one out in the third for a 1-0 lead. Finley gloved Weiss' single on one hop in shallow center and had a good chance to throw out Graffanino, but his poor throw took three hops and was late.
The Padres added two runs with two outs in the eighth. Wally Joyner walked and scored when left fielder Klesko booted Carlos Hernandez's double, allowing Hernandez to take third. He then scored on Lopez's passed ball.
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