The Atlanta Braves finally scored, and again that was all Steve Avery needed.
Avery pitched like a 21-year veteran rather than a 21-year-old and the Braves broke their record scoreless streak at 26 innings on Greg Olson's two-out double in the ninth off Doug Drabek, beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 1-0 Wednesday night and forcing the NL playoffs to a seventh game.Ron Gant stomped on home plate and stared at it after he scored, as if to stamp out Atlanta's frustration. He became the first Brave to get across the plate - without missing third base - since the first inning of Game 4, and ended their seemingly endless string of missed opportunities.
Olson, who failed to get a runner home from third base in the seventh inning, decided the third 1-0 game in this series. There had been just four previous 1-0 games in the 22-year history of the NL playoffs and never before in 137 postseason series had there been three 1-0 decisions.
"We felt we would score, sometime," Gant said. "There was a lot of tension on the bench. Things were not going our way. But we felt, with Steve pitching, one run would be enough."
He was right.
"I enjoyed myself," Avery said after extending his shutout string to an NL playoff record 161/3 innings. "I like to make our guys think that I'm as focused as possible.
"I think it relaxes everyone out there if they think I'm relaxed," he said. "I like to look around the stands when there's no one on base and take in the scenery."
Avery got to do that a lot and now, John Smoltz, baseball's winningest pitcher since the All-Star break, will try to extend Atlanta's improbable season when he faces 20-game winner John Smiley on Thursday night in a rematch of Game 3 starters.
The Pirates have played five deciding Game 7s in their postseason history and won every time, all in the World Series.
"The two teams that get to the playoffs get there because they have good pitching," Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland said. "This does not surprise me."
Avery shut out Pittsburgh on three hits through eight innings and struck out eight before Alejandro Pena relieved to start the ninth.
With Avery bundled up on the bench and shaking - "I don't know if it was because I was nervous or cold," he said - pinch hitter Gary Varsho led off with a sinking single, was sacrificed to second and took third on a two-out wild pitch to Andy Van Slyke.
But Pena got his third save of the series when, as he did for Avery's 1-0 win in Game 2, he stranded the tying run at third base in the ninth inning, getting Van Slyke to look at a changeup for strike three.
Van Slyke's strikeout made him, Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla hitless in their last 29 at-bats with runners on base. A lot of that has been against Avery.
"If I'm going to have to face him for the next five or six years, I'd poison him," Van Slyke said.
Avery allowed just nine hits and struck out 17 in his two outings. He is 2-0 in the playoffs, 4-0 against the Pirates this season and 20-8 overall.
"I felt I had good stuff in the first seven innings, but I started to die in the eighth," Avery said. "I was losing a little."
While Avery was overpowering Pittsburgh with fastballs, Drabek battled the Braves with breaking balls.
Drabek showed no ill effects of the left hamstring he strained running out a hit in Game 1 and shut down Atlanta on six hits for eight innings.
Drabek said he felt fine despite temperatures in the 40s. He only wished he'd made one more good pitch.
"I would've liked to have gotten that one to Olson down a little," Drabek said. "Physically, I felt fine.