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Gagne Homer Calls a Bluff

October 20, 1991|JIM MURRAY

MINNEAPOLIS — Charlie Leibrandt is the kind of pitcher they describe as "crafty." English translation: You can catch his fastball in your teeth. It gets to home plate slightly faster than a fourth-class letter. The curveball detours like a dog coming through a cornfield. The change-up disappears like Judge Crater.

He is hardly the kind of pitcher you would want to start in this phone booth they think is a baseball park. Facing the Minnesota Twins in this closet armed with a fastball you could clock with a sundial is like going into shark-infested waters with a knife and fork and a nosebleed.

He relies on guile, sleight-of-hand. He is like a guy in the Old West who has a deck of cards and a fresh horse.

He needs you to make a lot of mistakes.

Craft is not what you need against the Minnesota Twins in this ballpark. Power is what you require.

It wasn't as if he was the best Atlanta had. The Braves' prime Cy Young Award candidate and 20-game winner, Tom Glavine, was rested and ready. Have-fastball-will-throw.

It's an old ploy in baseball to lead with your low hole card. The most famous case of it came the year when Connie Mack had pitchers such as Hall of Famers Lefty Grove and George Earnshaw and blaze-thrower Rube Walberg and started a pitcher named Howard Ehmke, who had pitched 54 innings all year. Ehmke set a strikeout record and shot the team off to a 4-1 Series victory.

In 1950, the Philadelphia Phillies started a pitcher who had not started a game all year. Jim Konstanty pitched manfully but lost to the Yankees, 1-0.

It didn't work again Saturday night. The National League got beat by a familiar American League strategy--the three-run homer.

If Charlie Leibrandt could have pulled off a Howard Ehmke, the National League Atlanta Whatchamacallums would be sitting in what Red Barber used to call the catbird seat today. They still would have had all their aces and a one-game lead.

Minnesota played its ace. Jack Morris doesn't try to smuggle the ball past the batter. He throws it past them--or through them. He gave Atlanta eight innings of "Here! Hit this! If you can!" pitching Saturday night. Jack Meanness is his sobriquet through the league. He glowers, stares, dares you to hit it.

Leibrandt looked more like a guy trying to tiptoe past a haunted house--which, given the dimensions and the absence of wind currents, the Minnesota Metrodome was Saturday.

Leibrandt would stand precisely on the mound, feet together, head cocked slightly forward, like a guy lining up a nine-foot putt or a guy peeking at his hole card, hoping it is another jack.

He nibbled, he teased, he pitched out. He never messed with the white part of the plate. On 1-and-2 counts, he didn't press for the strikeout, he settled for the pop-up, the double-play ball, even the line drive right at somebody.

He tried to get guys to swing at ball four. He threw to first a lot because, when your "fastball" comes up with cobwebs on it, the baserunners get daring.

It's an old National League story. It's the curveball, off-speed league. The American League is the three-run homer, big-inning league.

Brute strength carried the day. Minnesota looked like the big kids on the block; Atlanta, the ankle-biters. Morris even acknowledged after the game that he "didn't have my best stuff." His less-than-best still overpowered Atlanta.

Leibrandt managed to look like the boy with his finger in the dike. It was merely a matter of time before they began solving those soap bubbles. Minnesota, true to AL tradition, wasn't swinging for opposite-field hits, bunting, hitting behind the runner. The Twins were going for those blue seats which, in the 'Dome, look as if they are slightly behind second base.

The Atlanta experiment blew up in the fifth inning. The burly first baseman, Kent Hrbek, who looks like three-run homer merely standing there, larruped a double to the fence. Scott Leius, whoever he is, sent him to third with a base hit to left. Greg Gagne, the No. 9 hitter in the lineup, then put the ball--and the game--into the left field seats. The ever-lovin' American League ace-in-the-hole, the three-run homer.

Was it a mistake to try to steal the pot with a bluff? Well, the team that has won the first game has won 50 of 87 World Series. When you have the dice, you might as well try to throw passes. And you don't save the ace.

Minnesota played it by the book. It loves to see finesse pitchers in the ballpark they used to call "Homerdome." The Twins had two home runs, two doubles and five other hits. They have never lost a World Series--or a playoff--game in this ballpark. They left the field looking like a guy who has cudgeled his mule.

Anything less than 90 m.p.h. this team treats as batting practice. Atlanta's not going to get the winners' share on junk bonds. They don't need to be slick, simply fast.

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