As Atlanta Brave pinch-hitter Luis Polonia dug in for the biggest at-bat of his life Saturday, he was overcome by a wave of anxiety that made his knees buckle.
“My legs were shaking,” said Polonia, who came up with the bases loaded and Game 1 of the World Series tied, 1-1, in the seventh inning. “I thought, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ How many thousands of at-bats have I had in my life? But this was different--I was nervous for the first time in my career.”
Then Polonia took a look at the Cleveland infield, which was playing at regular depth and conceding a run with no outs, and the butterflies scattered.
“I was surprised,” Polonia said of the Indians’ strategy. “It was like they didn’t care if we scored a run, like they didn’t realize who was pitching [for us]. With Greg Maddux throwing like he was, I knew all I had to do was hit the ball on the ground, and that made my job easier.”
Polonia, the former Angel and New York Yankee, got the job done, slapping a Julian Tavarez sinker to shortstop Omar Vizquel for a fielder’s choice that brought Fred McGriff home with the go-ahead run.
Rafael Belliard followed with a perfectly executed suicide squeeze, which scored David Justice with the eventual winning run in Atlanta’s 3-2 victory before 51,876 in Fulton County Stadium.
Atlanta’s offensive highlight Saturday may have been McGriff’s booming, bases-empty home run that traveled more than 400 feet into the right-field bleachers in the second inning.
But the Braves’ key runs batted in came off the little bats of the 5-foot-8, 160-pound Polonia and the 5-6, 160-pound Belliard, on balls that traveled a combined 130 feet during a two-run rally that featured no hits.
“That’s why baseball is such a crazy game,” said Polonia, whose grounder followed two walks by Indian starter Orel Hershiser and one by reliever Paul Assenmacher. “You don’t need a hit to get an RBI. You just do whatever it takes.”
The mere presence of Polonia in such a key World Series situation is a testament to baseball’s lunacy. A little more than two months ago Polonia was in his New Jersey home, out of a job, feeling washed up at age 30.
The Yankees designated Polonia for assignment in early August to make room for Darryl Strawberry, and Polonia had no idea whether he’d get released or sent to the minor leagues.
After nine days of inactivity Polonia got what he thought was a prank call on Aug. 11--someone claiming he had been traded to Atlanta for minor league outfielder Troy Hughes.
“I said there has to be some mistake,” Polonia said. “Atlanta doesn’t need anyone. But when I realized it was true, I got real happy. I have no hard feelings toward the Yankees. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here.”
If it wasn’t for an injury to Atlanta shortstop Jeff Blauser, who suffered a deep thigh bruise in the first game of the National League championship series, Belliard wouldn’t have been dwarfed in a sea of television cameras, microphones and notebooks Saturday night.
When the Braves determined Blauser couldn’t run at full strength, they activated Ed Giovanola before Game 1, meaning Belliard would go from utility infielder to starting shortstop.
So how does Belliard celebrate? By booting the first ball of the game and costing the Braves a run. Kenny Lofton reached on Belliard’s error in the first, stole second and third, and scored on Carlos Baerga’s grounder.
“When the game was still tied in the seventh I got worried that my error was going to be the difference,” Belliard said. “I had to do something to make up for it.”
Belliard got his chance in the seventh. After Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox’s lengthy argument over Vizquel’s play on Polonia’s grounder--Cox contended Vizquel didn’t have possession of the ball when he tagged second for the force out--Belliard seemed to stun the Indians--and Justice--with his bunt on Tavarez’s first pitch.
“It shocked the hell out of me,” Justice said. “It’s the first time in my six years here I’ve been involved in a squeeze.”
Belliard was not surprised, though.
“I’m not a big hitter, so I have to do the little things to help the team--that’s why I’ve been able to play in the major leagues for 11 years,” Belliard said. “If we do those little things well we’re going to win the series.”