WORLD SERIES: ATLANTA BRAVES vs. CLEVELAND INDIANS : Lopez Catches Fire at the Right Time : Baseball: Home run and pickoff play by Braves' catcher make up for last season's disappointment.


It seems to happen every few Octobers, at least in the years baseball manages to play its World Series.

Someone you least expect--an Ed Sprague, a Mickey Hatcher, a Bucky Dent, a Pat Borders--comes up with a big hit or a big play at the right time and becomes a part of Series lore.

Welcome to the club, Javier Lopez.

Initiation ceremonies were held Sunday night in Fulton County Stadium, where the Atlanta catcher came through with the big hit-- and the big play--to lead the Braves to a 4-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians and a 2-0 lead in the Series.

Lopez snapped a 2-2 tie with a two-run home run off Dennis Martinez in the bottom of the sixth inning, and the second-year catcher stifled a potential Indian rally in the eighth when he picked Manny Ramirez off at first base for the second out.

"It's a great feeling," said Lopez, 25, from Puerto Rico. "Everyone wants to be a World Series hero, and now that I am, it's something I'll never forget."

Unlike his rookie year, which Lopez would just as soon delete from his memory bank. Touted for six years as the next great catcher to come up through the Atlanta system, Lopez batted only .245 in 1994 and had problems handling the Braves' veteran pitching staff.

Some Atlanta pitchers, particularly ace Greg Maddux and Steve Avery, lost confidence in Lopez. So did Manager Bobby Cox, to a certain extent, when he switched to a platoon system at catcher, with 34-year-old veteran Charlie O'Brien handling most Maddux and Avery starts.

Cox continued the strategy this season--O'Brien was behind the plate for Maddux's two-hitter in Game 1 Saturday--but it's not as if Lopez sits on the bench and pouts when he doesn't play.

The platoon has helped keep O'Brien fresh and allowed Lopez to develop at a more gradual pace. Lopez thrived in those conditions, batting .315 with 14 home runs and 51 runs batted in this season.

Lopez has also been Atlanta's leading hitter in the postseason, batting .385 (10 for 26) with two homers and eight RBIs, including a three-run homer in the 10th inning of a 6-2 victory over Cincinnati in Game 2 of the National League championship series.

"I was very inconsistent in my rookie year, and I wasn't ready to play every day," Lopez said. "After the first two months of the season, I fell into a slump and got frustrated. I used it as a learning experience."

Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke said Lopez learned well.

"That was a tough situation for him last year," Lemke said. "The pitchers were used to [former Brave] Greg Olson behind the plate, and when things went wrong, they pointed the finger at Javy.

"But Javy is mentally tough. He didn't get down on himself or mad at anyone. Both the pitchers and Javy got together and worked it out."

Added Cox: "He's come a long ways in a very difficult position. He has a great throwing arm and has been a clutch guy for us all season."

Lopez displayed both of those traits Sunday. After sending Cleveland left fielder Albert Belle to the wall with a long fly ball in the fourth inning, Lopez drove a 1-2 Martinez fastball that tailed right onto the sweet part of his bat over the center-field wall in the sixth.

Lopez appeared to outguess the crafty, 40-year-old Martinez on his home-run pitch. Martinez was ahead on the count, a situation that usually calls for his out pitch--a nasty sinker that often winds up at the batter's ankles.

"But with David Justice on third and a tie game, I figured he wouldn't throw that pitch because it might end up in the dirt and get past the catcher," Lopez said. "I thought he might throw me a fastball, and he did. And I took advantage of it."

His pickoff play in the eighth was as much cerebral as it was physical. When Ramirez singled in the fourth inning, Atlanta first baseman Fred McGriff noticed Ramirez took a large lead after Tom Glavine delivered his pitch.

"I saw him take another big lead in the eighth, and Fred gave me the sign for the pickoff," Lopez said.

Reliever Alejandro Pena's pitch to the left-handed batting Jim Thome was inside and a bit high, and Lopez fired a bullet to McGriff, who swiped Ramirez's hands before he could reach the bag with his dive.

Pena walked Thome, but instead of first and second with one out, there was only a runner on first with two outs. Mark Wohlers then retired pinch-hitter Paul Sorrento on a fly ball to end the inning.

"Everything worked out perfect on that play," Lemke said. "You couldn't ask for a better pitch to pick him off. Javy has a great arm, and he showed it there."

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