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9TH-INNING RALLY PUTS BRAVES IN SERIES

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The only comparison is with the great ones. Nothing less gives this its due.

There weren't even any words for awhile, only primal screams and hysterical jumps on one side, blank stares and open mouths on the other.Atlanta's 3-2 pennant-winning victory over Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the NL playoffs Wednesday night was what the wonder of baseball is all about: How a team can go from choker to champion in one swing of a bat.

"I've never been part of something that went from down there to up here so quick," Braves left fielder Ron Gant said. "I was hyperventilating. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. I never dreamed of anything like this."

Neither did the Pirates. No nightmare could have been this cruel.

They led 2-1 with two outs in the ninth inning, one measly little out from their first World Series since 1979. They were about to become only the eighth team to overcome a 3-1 postseason deficit. The Braves were broken, finished, kaput.

Well, not quite.

Francisco Cabrera, a 26-year-old catcher from the Dominican Republic whose major league season in 1992 consisted of 10 pinch-hit at-bats, whited out those history books before the ink had dried. He drove a single to left with the bases loaded, and Sid Bream's slide past catcher Mike LaValliere's tag gave Atlanta its second straight pennant and sent the Pirates to their record-tying third playoff loss in three years.

Bobby Thomson. Bill Mazeroski. Carlton Fisk. Kirk Gibson. Those are some on the names in the club Cabrera has joined. Who would have believed it?

"I'm still in shock," Pirates manager Jim Leyland said about a half-hour after it ended. "I felt like the game was ours."

Not quite. It's the Braves who will play Toronto in the first international World Series. Tom Glavine will start for the Braves, probably against Jack Morris, when the Series opens Saturday night in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

"This is a gift of God to the Atlanta Braves," center fielder Otis Nixon said. "It don't get no better."

And it don't get more dramatic.

Pittsburgh led 2-0 against John Smoltz on Orlando Merced's sacrifice fly in the first and Andy Van Slyke's RBI single in the sixth. Doug Drabek had a five-hitter going into the ninth, escaping a basesloaded, no-outs jam in the sixth and a two-on jam in the seventh.

This time, he couldn't dodge the tomahawks in the Chop Shop. Terry Pendleton, just 1 for 21 left-handed in the series, opened the ninth with a double, down the right field line. The crowd sensed the chance for something big.

"Even though we were down to our last three outs, we thought we could win," Pendleton said.

Maybe, but they were just about the only ones.

David Justice hit a grounder to second baseman Jose Lind, who made just six errors all season. This time, Lind couldn't handle it, and Justice reached on the error as Pendleton took third.

"Chico makes that play 10 out of 10 times," Leyland said. "He's a Gold Glove fielder, but what can you say?"

Only that Drabek clearly was pitching on fumes. He walked Bream, loading the bases, and was pulled after 129 pitches on three days' rest.

"Drabek pitched his heart out," said Smoltz, the Most Valuable Player of the series.

In came Stan Belinda, who passes for the Pirates' closer. He blew six of 24 save chances during the season; the Pirates' bullpen blew 20 chances in all.

He started out by retiring Gant - barely. Gant hit a drive that Barry Bonds caught in front of the fence in left as Pendleton tagged and scored. That made it 2-1.

"I tell you what. When we had the bases loaded and Ronnie's fly drove in that one run, there was still some doubt," Bream said.

And that doubt remained for a little bit. Belinda walked Damon Berryhill, and the chanting, chopping fans went into a frenzy. Brian Hunter, batting for Rafael Belliard, popped to Lind in short right, and now there was one out to go. Up came Cabrera, batting for pitcher Jeff Reardon.

"I was on my knees praying," reliever Marvin Freeman remembered. "I was saying, `Please, Francisco, please. Don't wait until tomorrow. We can't wait."'

Belinda fell behind 2-0 on Cabrera. The tension was incalculable.

"I was looking for something over the middle I could hit," Cabrera said. "I knew he wanted to throw a strike now because he didn't want to get in trouble. He threw a strike and I hit a foul ball and I said, `Well, I got a green light and I've got to hit the ball good."'

He sure did. Cabrera drove a single into left field. Justice scored. Bream rounded third. In came the throw from Bonds. Bream slid to the foul side of LaValliere's tag. The call by umpire Randy Marsh: Safe!!

"I made the pitch I wanted to make and he got me," Belinda said. "I gave it the best I had. It was a fastball down a little bit. Hopefully I'll have a chance to do it over again."

Players and photographers ran onto the field. Fans danced in the aisles. An incredible noise arose from the ballpark, which had to be the happiest place on the planet.

"I don't think this will be forgotten for a long time," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "I can't think of anything better."

In the bowels of the stadium, the Pirates were like a deflated balloon.

"I'm still in shock," Leyland said.