One of the most infamous droughts in American sports will end tonight. Cleveland will host its first World Series game in 41 years.
The anticipation is tempered by the silence of the Indians’ bats - eight hits and one legitimate run in losing the first two games in Atlanta. With World Series banners and Indians souvenirs everywhere you look downtown, Indians fans face a sobering thought:
If the Indians don’t win their first home World Series game since 1954, they will fall into a 3-0 hole, the kind from which no baseball team has ever emerged.
In this World Series game they have to win, the Indians have their best chance to win.
The Indians will play in their comfortable den, the rollicking and elegant Jacobs Field. Besides gaining assets such as the home crowd and the cooler weather (forecast low: 44 degrees), they get the rules on their side. With the American League as host, the Indians get to use the designated hitter.
The Indians will face a right-handed pitcher, so they get to use their most effective lineup: Eddie Murray moves from first base back to DH. Power-hitting Paul Sorrento gets to play first base (he doesn’t play against left-handers). And power-hitting Jim Thome doesn’t have to go lefty against lefty.
Atlanta and the nation will see the lineup that led the Indians to a 100-44 record in the regular season - the lineup that provided tonight’s starter, right-hander Charles Nagy, with the best run support of any American League pitcher. Nagy received more than eight runs per nine innings and won 16 games despite inconsistent performances.
The Indians had better take advantage against Braves postseason veteran John Smoltz, because as tough as Smoltz can be, he is the Braves’ only right-handed starter not named Greg Maddux. This is the one game the Indians can win with their left-handed power.
Shortstop Omar Vizquel suggested Monday that Smoltz might be an easier mark because he is more of a power pitcher than Maddux and Tom Glavine, who, with their control and ability to change speeds, held the Indians to five hits in 15 innings.
“This power pitcher is going to get a lot of guys out of their slumps,” Vizquel said.
He spoke moments after Kenny Lofton - the Indians’ only offensive threat so far - said cleanup batter Albert Belle might be jarred out of his postseason slump if he threw a tantrum.
There is no giddiness among the Braves. If anything, they seem to be growing more stern as they get closer to their avowed goal of the World Series title, determined that it won’t elude them this time - as it did in their last three postseason appearances.
“We were fortunate to win those two games in Atlanta,” reliever Mark Wohlers said Monday. “It took a total team effort and commitment.”
In the last 30 years, eight clubs have lost the World Series after taking a 2-0 or 3-1 advantage.
But no team has come close to overcoming a 3-0 deficit. Whenever a team has won the first three games of the Series, it has won Game 4 or Game 5.
So the Indians still have time. But that time must start tonight.
If the Braves win Game 3, they will reach the verge of providing Atlanta with its first league championship in any major professional sport. They also will step to the brink of a historic October domination.
They will be within one game of becoming the second team to sweep both the league championship series and the World Series.
This marks the 26th season in which the league championship series has preceded the World Series. The only team that has swept both events is the 1976 Cincinnati Reds, who wiped out the Phillies and the Yankees.
When the Reds did it, the league championship series was best-of-five, not the current best-of-seven. Sparky Anderson’s Big Red Machine went 7-0 in back-to-back sweeps.
Against Cincinnati and Cleveland, the Braves can go 8-0 - turning the “o” on either end of Ohio into a big “zero.”
The Indians, like the Reds, often have been one clutch hit away from taking charge against the Braves. Yet, the Braves have gotten the clutch hits all season, and their pitching staff hasn’t given them up. It is as if their whole season was a dry run for the close games of October.
Atlanta doesn’t have the thunder of Cleveland, but the Braves seem comfortable in close games. Perhaps they benefit from so many years of big games.
Counting the first-round series against Colorado, the Braves are 4-0 on the road in the postseason. All four victories came during their final at-bat. In two, they trailed entering the ninth.
So near-perfect closer Jose Mesa will go out in the ninth tonight with a one-run lead, and the crowd will be on its feet for a victory in this must-win game, but then the Braves will put a few runners on base, and Fred McGriff will swing. …
Hold it. After 41 years, Indians fans shouldn’t have to think about that until it happens.