BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Justice Gets a Little Bit With Hit

He grounded out with two out and runners at first and third base in the first inning. He grounded out with two out and runners at first and third in the third inning.

At that point, David Justice was batting .229 in 11 postseason games and .182 in the World Series.

As he sat in the dugout while watching his Atlanta Brave teammates bat in the fourth inning of Game 4 on Wednesday night, Justice appeared to need a kind word and pat on the back.

He got that and more from Atlanta batting instructor Clarence Jones.

"I told him he needed to get a little more upright in his stance and to let it go," Jones said later.

"I thought he had become defensive and was feeling for the ball. He tends to get in too much of a crouch and chase bad pitches. The more upright, the more extension, and the harder he hits it.

"I told him that I don't care if he strikes out, but to let it go."

Heeding the advice, Justice was ultimately served.

He drove Cleveland center fielder Kenny Lofton to the base of the fence in dead center to catch his sixth-inning drive, then delivered a two-run single against left-handed specialist Paul Assenmacher in the seventh.

It was the hit that took an Atlanta lead from 2-1 to 4-1 and ultimately proved decisive as the Braves prevailed, 5-2, to move within one victory of the only title that has eluded them in the '90s.

"We know we're not there yet, but we can taste it. We're only human," said Justice, one of nine Braves to have experienced every heartbreak.

The loss to Minnesota in the '91 World Series, to Toronto in the '92 World Series and to Philadelphia in the National League championship series of 1993.

The strike interrupted last year's mission, but Justice said of the current situation:

"There's only one way it could be better and that would be if we were ahead, 3-0. But if you can't win one of three with Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz pitching, you don't deserve it, it's not meant to be."

Justice helped put the champagne on ice with his key hit, then contributed to Pedro Borbon Jr.'s save with a reaching, back-pedaling catch of Lofton's line drive to right for the final out, depressing a Jacobs Field crowd of 43,578.

How depressed was he after those first two at-bats against Ken Hill?

"We had a saying about guys with power in the minor leagues," he said. "We'd say that it only takes one at-bat to change the complexion of the game. They might get you out four or five times, but it only takes one, so I try to remember that and never get too low.

"However, they had definitely pitched around Freddie [McGriff, who walked in both the first and third innings] to get to me and I had two big opportunities to drive in runs and didn't do it, so it was definitely on my mind when Clarence came over and reminded me to stand up more.

"I have a tendency to see the low pitch as a strike when I crouch too much and get caught swinging at pitches in the dirt. The reminder definitely helped."

Justice was definitely the underdog in that situation. Assenmacher had not given up a hit in eight postseason appearances and had combined with his southpaw relief colleagues, Alan Embree and Jim Poole, to hold left-handed batters hitless in 17 postseason at-bats, registering eight strikeouts.

The eighth came when McGriff struck out ahead of Justice, who took an inside fastball for a strike, a fastball away for a ball and was frozen by a slider for a second strike.

"I knew everything he had then and was only looking for a pitch in the strike zone," Justice said. "It's funny, but I feel really relaxed against left-handers and tend to focus better."

Justice batted only .241 against left-handers during the season, hitting only seven of his 24 homers, but he got a 1-and-2 slider--"pretty much the same pitch he had just thrown me"--and drilled it to center field, driving in only his fourth and fifth runs of the postseason.

"The big hit," Manager Bobby Cox said later. "David broke it open against a very tough left-hander."

Said Justice: "It was very satisfying and something of a relief after those first two at-bats."

In the last week of October, Justice is still looking for relief from an injury suffered in early May. He bruised a nerve in his right shoulder diving for a ball, ultimately spent 22 days on the disabled list, and when batting coach Jones keeps reminding him to extend, it's easier said than done.

"It's still there, it still bothers me physically and psychologically," he said. "I can't finish with the high extension like I used to. I've had to change some things, but I haven't really found a consistent groove.

"It's unfortunate, but I still feel I've contributed. People point out that I batted only .253, but how important is the average? I know how to hit and when to hit [he drove in 78 runs]. We couldn't have won all those games if we hadn't done some important hitting."

One more win and Justice will get the rest his shoulder requires and the title that is his goal.

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