Johnson's Magic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They had learned that the career of one of their best pitchers was in jeopardy. They were trailing the team of the '90s in a pivotal postseason game and facing an October ace.

If the Florida Marlins were going to panic, this was the time.

But once again, the playoff newcomers didn't bow to pressure. The Marlins used a four-run sixth inning--punctuated by Charles Johnson's bases-clearing double--to rally for a 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 3 of the National League championship series Friday night.

Johnson's two-out double to left-center against right-hander John Smoltz broke a 2-2 tie and helped the Marlins take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. It also helped ignite a Pro Player Stadium crowd of 53,857, the largest to attend a baseball game in the stadium's history.

Game 4 is tonight. The Marlins, and their fans, can't wait.

"The crowd, the excitement--this is what baseball is all about," said Johnson, the Marlins' all-star catcher.

"This was just outstanding. This is why you play all those games in June, to get to this point. You play for days like this, especially when you win a ballgame like this."

The Marlins have become accustomed to clutch, two-out hits in the playoffs, but they said Johnson's performance had added significance because of the timing. The Marlins learned Thursday that right-hander Alex Fernandez has a career-threatening tear of the rotator cuff of his throwing shoulder.

Florida also was disappointed about being routed, 7-1, in Game 2 by the Braves. And they were facing Smoltz, who is tied with Whitey Ford and Dave Stewart at the top of the all-time list with 10 postseason victories.

"Everything going on with Alex, facing Smoltz, we just had a lot on our minds," Marlin outfielder Gary Sheffield said. "You need someone to pick you when you're dealing with stuff like that. C.J.'s hit was big, real big."

Sheffield did his part, hitting a solo home run against Smoltz to tie the score, 1-1, with two out in the fourth inning. The Braves took a 1-0 lead in the top of the inning when Kenny Lofton scored on Fred McGriff's sacrifice fly. Smoltz had not given up a hit to that point, and he had struck out six. But Sheffield hit Smoltz's first pitch into the seats in left-center.

"We were down, so I just told myself to take a shot up there," Sheffield said. "When I got back [to the dugout], I just told the guys to keep pushing and keep fighting."

The Marlins listened. Florida began the sixth trailing, 2-1, after Jeff Blauser scored on Javy Lopez's sacrifice fly in the top of the inning.

With one out in the sixth, Edgar Renteria doubled to left-center and Sheffield walked. Renteria scored and Sheffield went to third when Darren Daulton, making his first start of the series at first base, doubled to right. Right fielder Andruw Jones misjudged the ball and it sailed over his head and to the wall.

"I don't know what happened on that," Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox said. "I've never seen him miss a ball like that."

After Bobby Bonilla flied to left for the second out, the Braves walked Devon White to load the bases. Cox's thinking? Johnson had no hits in 12 at-bats, with eight strikeouts, against Smoltz in his career to that point.

This time, though, Johnson won the battle. With the count at 2-and-2, Johnson doubled to left-center, scoring Sheffield, Daulton and White to give Florida a 5-2 lead.

"I was real frustrated after striking out on my first two at-bats," Johnson said. "Jim Eisenreich just told me to relax and go up there and look for my pitch. I got a slider that stayed up there and I was just happy to score some runs against him."

Smoltz's night was over after he struck out reliever Livan Hernandez to end the inning. Smoltz pitched six innings, giving up five runs on five hits. He struck out nine and walked five.

"Tonight was a tough game, there's no doubt about it," Smoltz said. "It was a heck of a time for [Johnson] to get his first hit off of me. That's what this time is all about."

Hernandez pitched 1 2/3 innings of scoreless relief for the Marlins. Closer Robb Nen pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to earn his second save of the series.

Rookie left-hander Tony Saunders started for Florida, giving up two runs on five hits in 5 1/3 innings. Saunders was 3-0 with a 1.65 earned-run average during the regular season against the Braves.

"My off-speed pitches weren't very good tonight," Saunders said. "I didn't have my best stuff, but I kept fighting to keep us in the game. I feel good because I kept battling."

The same can be said for his teammates.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

NL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

(Series tied, 1-1)

* Game 1: Florida 5, Atlanta 3

* Game 2: Atlanta 7, Florida 1

* Game 3: Friday at Florida

* Game 4: Today at Florida, 4:30 p.m.

* Game 5: Sunday at Florida, 1 p.m.

* Game 6: Tuesday at Atlanta, 5 p.m.*

* Game 7: Wednesday at Atlanta, 5 p.m.*

* if necessary

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

AL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

(Series tied, 1-1)

* Game 1: Baltimore 3, Cleveland 0

* Game 2: Cleveland 5, Baltimore 4

* Game 3: Today at Cleveland, 1:15 p.m.

* Game 4: Sunday at Cleveland, 4:30 p.m.

* Game 5: Monday at Cleveland, 5 p.m.

* Game 6: Wednesday at Baltimore, 1:15 p.m.*

* Game 7: Thursday at Baltimore, 5:15 p.m.*

* if necessary

TONIGHT'S GAME

* Time: 4:30 p.m.

* TV: Channel 4

* Pitchers: Atlanta's Denny Neagle (20-5) vs. Florida's Kevin Brown (16-8)

* SHORT STOPPER

Mike Bordick has been a key to the Orioles' success. C8

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