ATLANTA — When Francisco Cabrera finally fell asleep at 4:30 a.m. Thursday, he was nagged by a strange thought.
The unlikely hero of the Atlanta Braves' ninth-inning victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates for the National League championship hours earlier was not certain the dramatics had actually taken place.
"I could not believe it was me who had won that game," he said. "People had been calling me all night and telling me what I had done, but . . . for some reason, I could not believe."
By Friday afternoon, he had seen his two-out, two-run single replayed on every local station at seemingly every commercial break.
"I see it about 50 times and I finally say, 'Yes, that was me,' " Cabrera said.
And so all of the Braves will be believers as they face the Toronto Blue Jays in the 89th World Series beginning tonight at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium at 5:29 PDT.
This is far more than a duel between the United States and Canada, which is represented in the World Series for the first time since international play began in 1969.
"The hardest part about this series will be going through customs," Ron Gant of the Braves said.
It is also more than a duel between two managers, the Braves' Bobby Cox and the Blue Jays' Cito Gaston, who have been part of both organizations.
Cox managed four years for the Blue Jays, longer than anyone, and Gaston played five years for the Braves.
This is even more than a duel between Deion Sanders, who throws water and baseballs at members of the media, and Roberto Alomar, who throws gas on competitive embers.
When asked what he thought of the Braves on Friday, Alomar smiled and said, "They're going to lose."
More than anything, the World Series is a match between a team that has expected to be here since last February and a team that thought it wasn't going to be here until the bottom of the ninth inning on Wednesday.
"We have been hit by a 200-300 watt charge," the Braves' Otis Nixon said. "That much power, it just doesn't go away."
Those poor Blue Jays. They defeated the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday afternoon to quiet the charges that they are chokers, but in the middle of their postgame party, the Braves made them spill their champagne.
"We saw the Braves on television and . . . man, it was better than what Kirk Gibson did in the World Series," said Alfredo Griffin, Blue Jay shortstop. "They had no chance to win, and now they are here. They have to be inspired."
Said John Smoltz, the Braves' Game 2 starter: "There is an aura about this team right now. We don't want to let it slip away."
The Braves hope this emotion helps them overcome the one run in the final game that kept them from winning Atlanta's first World Series last year against the Minnesota Twins.
The Blue Jays will counter inspiration with intimidation.
Jack Morris, the pitcher who shut out the Braves for 10 innings in that final game last year, a 1-0 Twins' victory, will start for Toronto today.
"That's sort of crazy . . . I thought we got rid of him," the Braves' Brian Hunter said.
The Braves probably also thought they had gotten rid of David Cone, who had a 2.25 earned-run average and a shutout against them in three starts before being traded from the New York Mets to the Blue Jays.
But Cone will start Game 2, and will be followed in Game 3 by Juan Guzman, who is 29-8 since last season, including postseason.
This rotation is the heart of the Blue Jays' advantage over a Brave starting rotation that had a 6.07 ERA during the playoffs.
"I read some comments from the Braves where they said they would be more comfortable with me this time," Cone said. "Not a factor. I've got enough variety in my pitches that I won't look the same."
The Braves were certain they had rid themselves of reliever Duane Ward, who was traded to the Blue Jays in 1986. But he has returned with closer Tom Henke to form a bullpen that should give the Blue Jays another advantage.
"They have Jeff (Reardon) over there, and he is the best ever," Henke said, referring to the major leagues' all-time saves leader. "But I think our bullpen is deeper. I would give us the slight edge in that area."
Not only is Reardon inconsistent, his best setup man, Mike Stanton, is left-handed. This is another Blue Jay advantage; their hitters love left-handed pitching.
Alomar, a switch-hitter, has three more home runs against left-handers in 514 fewer at-bats.
Joe Carter is batting 65 points higher against left-handers. Manny Lee is batting 50 points higher. Candy Maldonado is batting 35 points higher.
Dave Winfield is batting 15 points higher against left-handers, and he will play all games in Atlanta even though there is no designated hitter there.
He will become the right fielder, moving either Candy Maldonado or John Olerud out of the lineup, completing an impressive offense that batted nine points better than the Braves with 25 more home runs.
"We're talking about a lot better hitting club than the Twins were last year," Gant said. "We are going to have to work with all nine hitters."
That work begins with left-hander Tom Glavine, the Braves' Game 1 starter, who gave up a playoff record eight runs during the second inning in his most recent postseason start earlier this week.
"The percentages are with Glavine right now, he can't pitch as poorly as he has," said Pat Gillick, the Blue Jays' general manager.
The Braves also have Cabrera, who late Wednesday reminded some in these parts of Bobby Thomson and his famous hit in 1951.
Thomson's homer gave the New York Giants a pennant-winning victory over the Dodgers, but the emotion apparently wore them out during the World Series, which they lost to the New York Yankees.
"Bobby Thomson . . . is he related to Robby Thompson?" Cabrera asked.
STAYING PUT: Deion Sanders is on the World Series roster, and the Braves say there was never any doubt. C8
FACTS, FIGURES: C12