peninsulaclarion.com - Big Unit chops Braves' playoff hopes 10/22/01

Posted: Monday, October 22, 2001

Big Unit chops Braves' playoff hopesBy BEN WALKERAP Baseball WriterBy BEN WALKER

AP Baseball Writer

ATLANTA -- For Randy Johnson and all the other Arizona old-timers, the long journey ended Sunday night.

And now, another one begins.

The Diamondbacks reached the World Series faster than any expansion team ever, doing it in only their fourth year of existence when Johnson pitched them past the Atlanta Braves 3-2 in Game 5 of the NL championship series.

A new franchise, yet one loaded with veterans who had never gone this far before.

''I'm so thrilled for all the guys in this room,'' said NLCS MVP Craig Counsell, the only player on the roster with a championship ring. ''So many guys in there have played 10, 12 years, accomplished so much in their career, and not had a chance to do this.''

Johnson will be joined by 10 other thirtysomethings -- Mark Grace, Luis Gonzalez and Jay Bell among them-- making their first Series appearance.

''Do you believe this?'' Gonzalez said to no one in particular in a clubhouse filled with long hugs.

Also among them is pitcher Mike Morgan, 42, who has played for a record 12 teams in the majors, and 22 clubs overall in his pro career.

''I realize how special it is. There's no guarantee you'll ever get to the World Series,'' Johnson said. ''There's only two or three people on our team who have ever been there. I think we want to enjoy the moment, and then realize we have more work to do.''

Now, the 38-year-old ace with three Cy Young awards gets to step onto baseball's biggest stage.

Game 1 is Saturday night at Bank One Ballpark, against either the New York Yankees or Seattle Mariners. And Arizona has ominous news for anyone visiting the desert -- be it Schilling or Johnson, both aces will be fully rested for the opener.

''I think they've got a great chance,'' Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. ''They've clearly got the most outstanding back-to-back starters you could ever want.''

Johnson, who had lost a record seven straight postseason decisions coming into the series, erased all doubt about his ability to win when it counted. Sweating and grimacing, he earned his second victory in six days, having won 2-0 in Game 1.

The Big Unit made his 118th and final pitch his best, striking out Brian Jordan with the bases loaded to preserve a one-run lead in the seventh inning. Fellow ace Curt Schilling applauded from the dugout, and patted Johnson when he reached the top step.

Erubiel Durazo, pinch-hitting for the injured Grace, hit a tiebreaking, two-run homer in the fifth off Tom Glavine. Danny Bautista, starting on a hunch by manager Bob Brenly, had an RBI single.

Byung-Hyun Kim relieved Johnson and pitched two hitless innings for his second save, making Brenly the first manager to lead a team to the World Series in his first year since Kansas City's Jim Frey in 1980.

Putting Bautista in center field for Steve Finley was among the many moves that paid off for Brenly in his first season since stepping out of the broadcast booth.

''It's easy when you have a group of guys like this to work with,'' Brenly said. ''These guys believed in what they were going to do this year.''

Counsell, who helped Florida beat Cleveland in Game 7 in 1997, hit .381 and scored five runs in five games.

Back in spring training, Johnson and Schilling were among several Arizona players who talked about possibly going to the Series.

''A lot of people said we were a veteran team that was too old, that we were on the downside,'' Johnson said.

In fact, Johnson was among nine Arizona players who had played 10 seasons in the majors and never gone this far.

''It's a dream come true for a lot of people in this room, including myself,'' Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo said.

Arizona became the third visiting team in five years to clinch the NL pennant at Turner Field, following Florida in 1997 and San Diego in 1998. Glavine also lost both of those season-enders.

The defeat represented another bitter finish for the Braves. Despite a record run of 10 straight division titles, they have just one championship to show for it.

''We'll be back next year,'' Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux said. ''We always are, aren't we?''

A startling small crowd of 35,652, about 15,000 short of a sellout, saw the Diamondbacks win their third in a row at Atlanta.

It was no surprise -- this year, the Braves became the only team in baseball history to reach the postseason with a losing record at home.

Once again, Atlanta hurt itself with a misplay. Second baseman Marcus Giles botched Counsell's leadoff grounder in the fifth for an error and with two outs, Durazo homered. Durazo batted after Grace left with a tight right hamstring.

The Diamondbacks scored nine unearned runs in the five games against Atlanta. They have not yet given up an unearned run in this series.

Johnson, coming off the three-hit shutout in Game 1, had no trouble until Julio Franco hit a solo homer in the fourth that made it 1-all.

Johnson faced his toughest test in the seventh when a two-out walk to Giles set up Franco's RBI single. Chipper Jones then worked a tense, eight-pitch walk to bring up Jordan with the bases loaded.

Pitching on fumes, Johnson got Jordan to swing over a slider to end the inning.

Notes: Grace, who hurt himself scoring on Bautista's single in the fourth, said he expected to OK for the Series opener. ... The Diamondbacks swept a three-game series at Turner Field in August that put them into the NL West lead for the rest of the season. ... Bautista got the start despite not having a hit in the postseason and being just a .154 lifetime hitter against Glavine...Finley was leading Arizona in batting in the postseason and was a career .304 hitter against Glavine. ... Glavine pitched on three days' rest.

All Contents ?Copyright 2001, The Peninsula Clarion and Morris Digital Works.

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