10/08/2002 01:47 am ET
Bullpen delivers in big spot
Rodriguez gets Giants out of jam; Worrell goes two
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
ATLANTA -- Pitcher Felix Rodriguez, manager Dusty Baker and the Giants held their collective breath Monday night.
And if the sixth-inning screaming line drive by Atlanta's Rafael Furcal had not gone straight into the glove of Giants center fielder Kenny Lofton, they may not have breathed much more this postseason.
But the Giants will be drawing breath in the National League Championship Series, thanks to their 3-1 victory over the Braves Monday night in the deciding fifth game of the NL Division Series.
A key reason for the win was the sixth-inning performance of Rodriguez, who hardly ever pitches that early. Because Baker got Rodriguez into the game at that point, the Giants will make their appointment in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals starting Wednesday at Busch Stadium.
"With the pressure right now, you have to be ready in the first inning, second inning ... there's no tomorrow," Rodriguez said wearing the smile of a man waiting to get doused with champagne and beer in the jubilant Giants clubhouse. "You have to be ready right now."
It took some more work to preserve the importance of the clutch sixth inning, not to mention Barry Bonds' fourth-inning homer.
Lofton's bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the seventh added an insurance run. Tim Worrell escaped a first-and-third jam in the seventh by enticing Javy Lopez to swing at a third-out, third-strike bouncer, and followed that up with a smooth, two-strikeout eighth. Robb Nen faced first and third with no outs in the ninth, but escaped with no runs when he struck out Gary Sheffield and got Chipper Jones to bounce into a game-ending double play.
But the champagne toast of the night went to Baker's move to Rodriguez, even if it was strange in that it came at least an inning earlier than he normally goes to the veteran right-hander. The Braves had cut the difference to 2-1 on sub Mark DeRosa's pinch-hit, RBI single off reliever Aaron Fultz with one out. With two still on base and but one out, Baker went to Rodriguez at the risk of being second-guessed right out of San Francisco.
Instead, Baker wound up in the Giants clubhouse dancing the merengue and high-fiving -- first with Manny Aybar -- all the while being drenched with champagne.
"We went to Felix because that was a situation where this was the fifth game -- fifth and final game," Baker said.
Rodriguez, who struggled early this season but finished strong in a late-inning setup role, had faced just five batters before the seventh inning all season. Had the move backfired, Baker could have been accused of overreacting to the struggles of Aybar, who allowed five runs on two pitches in the Game 3 loss at Pacific Bell Park on Saturday.
Instead, Rodriguez worked pinch-hitter Matt Franco into a weak fly to center. Then, to be frank, Furcal knocked the daylights out of a Rodriguez pitch. But the Giants had Lofton positioned precisely two slide-steps from where he needed to be.
Rodriguez readily admitted the pitch was bad, but that was by design.
"I didn't think he was going to swing at 3-1; it surprised me," Rodriguez said. "As soon as he hit the ball, I was thinking it was a base hit."
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox had a sense that was his team's big chance, and he managed that way.
Andruw Jones and Vinny Castilla singled earlier in the inning to finally drive Giants starter Russ Ortiz (5 1/3 innings, four hits, one earned run) from the game. By going to the bench for DeRosa, key right-handed hitter Marcus Giles (who was entered, then removed when Baker went with Rodriguez) and Franco, and having already burned Darren Bragg to pinch-hit in the fifth, Atlanta had little bench left for later
But Baker made the winning countermove, even if for a second Furcal appeared to have put the Giants in check.
"Like my old coach, Luke Appling, said here, he told me if you're going to be lucky you've got to think lucky," Baker said. "We were thinking
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.