The Cincinnati Reds' clubhouse was nearly empty late Tuesday night. The stereo was shut off. The camera crews were gone. The only sound was a muffled groan coming from a locker.
"We could have won this game, we should have won this game, but we let the damn thing get away," Red shortstop Barry Larkin said. "Maybe we didn't give it away, but they definitely took it away.
"We blew opportunity after opportunity, and now we're paying the price big time."
The Atlanta Braves, who have been to this dance four consecutive seasons, took a 2-1, 11-inning victory away from the Reds in the first game of the National League championship series at Riverfront Stadium.
The crowd of 36,762 (40,382 paid)--the smallest postseason crowd outside Wrigley Field and Fenway Park since Game 5 of the 1981 championship series between the Dodgers and Montreal Expos at Olympic Stadium--watched in disbelief as Mike Devereaux drove in the game-winning run with a two-out single in the 11th inning off Mike Jackson.
The game appropriately ended with runners on first and third, and Reggie Sanders grounding into the Reds' league championship record fifth double play of the game.
"That's the last team you expect to hit into five double plays," Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke said. "But they kept hitting them right at us, and we kept turning them. Really, they killed themselves."
The Reds say it's no reason to panic, but considering that they still have to face Greg Maddux twice in the next five games in this best-of-seven series, they already find themselves faced with a must-win situation.
"To win the game in this kind of fashion, on their turf, and in their hostile environment," Brave third baseman Chipper Jones said, "is big. No, it's huge. We beat their ace [Pete Schourek] and they haven't even seen ours yet."
Said Red second baseman Bret Boone: "Hey, he's right. This one hurts, it hurts real bad. We let the damn thing get away."
Schourek was cruising along with a five-hit shutout for eight innings, completely manhandling the Braves. The Braves not only didn't have an extra-base hit, but they had not even advanced a baserunner to second base.
Along came the ninth inning . . .
Chipper Jones, the man the Braves are touting as the rookie of the year, led off with a single to left. Still, the Reds hardly appeared concerned. In fact, they didn't bother warming anyone up in the bullpen.
Schourek then jammed Fred McGriff with an inside fastball. When the ball came off his bat, McGriff moaned, believing he had hit into a double play. Jones feared the ball was going right to Red first baseman Hal Morris.
"It was unbelievable," Jones said, "the ball came off funny off the bat. It hit the dirt, and spurted away. It kind of froze [Morris]. He wasn't able to extend his arms."
The ball bounced over Morris' arm, into right field, and the Braves had baserunners on first and third with no outs.
"Funny game, isn't it?" McGriff said. "Maybe a foot over, and the Reds got a win. Now, we're the winners. Hey, we'll take it."
Schourek, pitching what he called his greatest game, then watched in disbelief as his night's effort went to waste. David Justice merely hit a ground ball to Boone for a forceout, sending the game into extra innings.
While neither team could manage a hit against one another's closers, Red reliever Mike Jackson made the fatal mistake of opening the 11th by walking McGriff. Luis Polonia sacrificed McGriff to second. And after Javier Lopez bounced out to third, Devereaux drove a 2-and-1 pitch into center, scoring McGriff for the game winner.
"People talk about how our benches are even," Atlanta outfielder Dwight Smith said. "Come on, who are they kidding? We've got the best damn bench in the league. They could kidnap our three [starting] outfielders, and we'd step right in. Me, Devo, and Luis [Polonia], we can play every day."
Devereaux, traded to Atlanta on Aug. 25 from the Chicago White Sox for minor league outfielder Andre King, called it the greatest moment of his career. He was with the Dodger organization for four years, traded away to the Baltimore Orioles for Mike Morgan during the 1989 spring training, and was signed by the White Sox this spring.
"We're always confident we can come back on teams," Devereaux said, "and tonight, it was just a matter of time."
Devereaux's heroics nearly were wasted in the bottom of the 11th, however, when pinch-hitter Thomas Howard led off with a double off reliever Greg McMichael. Larkin moved Howard to third by grounding out to the right side, setting the stage for Sanders.
Johnson would later say there's no one he'd rather have in that situation. Sanders batted .306 with 28 homers and 99 RBIs during the season, and now only needed a fly ball to tie the game.
Instead, he hit the second pitch to shortstop Rafael Belliard. Belliard stepped on second base and threw to first for the easy double play, continuing Sanders' dismal slump.