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WORLD SERIES : Atlanta Braves vs. Cleveland Indians : Cleveland's Coldest Winter in 40 Years? For Some, Maybe : Baseball: Team is close to suffering same fate as the Indian team that was swept in the 1954 Series.

October 26, 1995|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CLEVELAND — The tremendous 100-victory season . . . the record-setting offensive performances . . . the most memorable season the last 41 years in Cleveland. . . .

It all could be washed from our memory tonight.

Just as the great Cleveland Indian team that won 111 games was almost forgotten the moment it was swept in the 1954 World Series, this team is on the verge of suffering the same fate.

The Indians, losing, 5-2, to the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday night, suddenly find themselves in nearly a hopeless situation.

They trail three games to one in the World Series, and must defeat the Braves three consecutive games to be defined as one baseball's greatest teams.

If the task is not enormous enough by itself, merely to receive a return trip to Atlanta would require beating three-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux tonight.

"We can talk all we want," Indian third baseman Jim Thome said, "but right now the Braves are the better team. If you're the Braves, you can be going to bed tonight and saying, 'This is what we've waited for.'

" 'We're up, 3-1. We've got Maddux on the mound. We can close these guys out.'

"No one's saying it's impossible, but you've got to be realistic. It doesn't look real good right now."

It's premature to haul out the cases of champagne in public, but in the aftermath of the Braves' celebration, the clubhouse attendants already began preparing their order. If the Braves have a lead in the seventh inning tonight, an attendant said, the champagne will be brought into the clubhouse and put on ice.

"Couldn't be a better position for us with Mad Dog going," said Brave starter Steve Avery, who yielded only three hits and one run.

Only six teams in World Series history have won a championship after trailing three games to one, and no comeback was ever performed against a team that had Maddux on its pitching staff.

While no one was crazy enough in the Indians' clubhouse to say they were in good shape, there was some twisted logic by shortstop Omar Vizquel that raised a few eyebrows.

"The pressure's all on the Braves now," Vizquel said.

Come again?

"Yeah, the pressure's on them," he repeated. "It's totally on them. They're up 3-1, they're so close to winning the World Series, and we've got nothing to lose."

You sure about this?

"Hey, the worst thing that can happen to us is that we lose the World Series," Vizquel said. "That's the worst thing, right? Is that so bad?

Perhaps the most painful aspect of an early exit is the lingering memory the Indians would leave for the long, cold winter.

The Indians wanted so desperately to show the world how life has changed in Cleveland the last 41 years, but their powerful offense has been shut down, leaving the entire city exasperated.

The Indians are batting only .190 this series and the heart of their lineup--Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle and Eddie Murray--has been pathetic. The trio is hitting .200, scoring two runs with two homers and nine runs batted in. Even leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton was finally stopped Wednesday, going hitless in five at-bats.

"It's hard to say we have even one guy who's hot," Vizquel said. "They have shut down out entire lineup. Everybody. It's unbelievable what they're doing to us.

"I think maybe we've been giving too much credit to that pitching staff. I know they're good, don't get me wrong, but nobody's that good. The way we've been swinging, anyone could get us out."

The Indians' offensive ineptitude has left their pitchers knowing they can't make a mistake, and every time they do, Manager Mike Hargrove finds himself being ridiculed.

The latest wave of second-guessing occurred with Game 4 tied at 1-1 in the seventh when Hargrove sent starter Ken Hill back to the mound instead of left-handed reliever Paul Assenmacher.

Hargrove insisted that Hill still was pitching well. Yet, Hill had given up four long fly balls to the last four batters he faced, including a 400-foot homer by Ryan Klesko.

Hill opened the inning by striking out No. 9 hitter Rafael Belliard, then walked Marquis Grissom. Instead of bringing in Assenmacher to face left-handed hitter Luis Polonia, Hargrove allowed Hill to face one more batter.

Polonia slashed a double into left-center, scoring Grissom. And by the time the inning was over, Assenmacher had given up a two-out, two-run single to David Justice, providing the Braves with an insurmountable 4-1 lead.

"You can't go out and expect to win ballgames when you're hitting like we've been," Cleveland first baseman Herbert Perry said. "We've got to give the pitchers some help. We've got to give them some breathing room.

"And I guess the worst thing about it is that now we've got to do it against a Cy Young winner.

"We've been in tough situations before, but never like this. What are you going to do? You've just got to hope Maddux has a bad night.

"We might try praying too."

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