ATLANTA - It was one of the most extraordinary openers in the 122-year history of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club.
Just as surely, it was one of the most exhilarating, in its own exceptionally bizarre way.
Damaso Marte and Matt Capps blew a five-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning -- yes, five-run lead -- but Xavier Nady's second home run in the 12th finally, but barely, pushed the Pirates past the Atlanta Braves, 12-11, last night at Turner Field.
And this is to say nothing of the multiple momentum shifts and mood swings, several other dramatic hits and a defensive gaffe for the ages that allowed the Braves to tie with two outs in the bottom of the ninth ...
- Game: Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves, 7:10 p.m., Turner Field, Atlanta.
- Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Tom Gorzelanny (14-10, 3.88 ERA last year) vs. RHP Jair Jurrjens (3-1, 4.70).
Where to start?
How about with John Russell, breathing a deep sigh in his manager's office minutes after a very hey-you-asked-for-this-job inaugural victory?
Had it sunk in?
"Not yet," Russell replied, managing a small smile. "It was a little bit of a rollercoaster. Obviously, you don't want to win in that fashion every night. But give our guys credit. We battled back."
OK, begin by flashing back to the eighth.
The score was 4-4, and Nady led off with a convincing home run, ripping a fastball from Manny Acosta to his favorite power alley in right. Two more reached after that, and Nate McLouth pulled another Acosta fastball to the same seats, and that three-run shot made it 8-4.
A scratched-out insurance run in the ninth made it look academic.
Still, Russell seemed in no mood to experiment and summoned Marte.
That went poorly, with Marte walking two around a strikeout.
Russell then turned to Capps, even though it was not yet a save situation. But Capps, in enormously uncharacteristic fashion, walked his first two batters -- one-third of his season total for 2007, when exempting the intentional ones -- and the Braves had a run.
"I really don't know," Capps answered when asked what happened. "I'm just glad it happened now, and it's over with."
Chipper Jones' two-run single was next, and it was 9-7, with the tying run at the plate.
Capps got Mark Teixeira to hit a high flyout and did likewise to Brian McCann ... except that his pop to left-center did not result in an out. Rather, the ball stunningly landed between left fielder Jason Bay and McLouth, each winding up flat-footed, each looking skyward, each about 10 feet from where it hit the grass.
Two runs came across to make it 9-9, as the remnants of the crowd of 45,269 leaped and roared along with the Braves on the field and in the dugout.
All concerned on the Pirates' end explained that they were in a no-doubles defense, an alignment in which the outfielders are slightly deeper and the corner men closer to the lines. That meant Bay and McLouth had farther to run than usual.
Still, each was there in ample time, and Bay actually overran where the ball landed.
"He thought I was going to catch it, and I thought he was going to catch it," McLouth explained. "Simple as that."
Bay was not immediately available for comment.
Russell, asked if he had ever seen such a play involving not one but two outfielders, downplayed it even as he pledged to address it.
"I've been around baseball long enough," he said. "Now, we know what happened. Hopefully, it will never happen again."
So, a blowout victory suddenly was going to extra innings.
"Crazy," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Just crazy."
Franquelis Osoria put up zeroes in the 10th and 11th to stabilize the Pirates, and McLouth led off the 12th with a liner to center off Blaine Boyer. He was bunted to second, and Bay drew a five-pitch walk.
LaRoche flied out for the second out, but Nady again found his alley, slicing a 2-0 fastball just above that right-field fence for three runs and a 12-9 lead.
"I was trying to get something I could drive and, fortunately, I got a decent pitch," he said.
Not on this night, not even after Osoria got two quick outs in the bottom half.
Jeff Francouer took him deep to center to pull Atlanta within two. Mark Kotsay doubled, Matt Diaz singled him home, and it was 12-11.
But Corky Miller skied one to center, and McLouth squeezed it -- tightly, no doubt -- for the final out.
"Every once in a while, you need guys to step up for you, and Nady and McLouth did that for us," Russell said.
Osoria's three-inning stint --- longer than any he made in spring training - brought his first major-league victory, marking one of many aspects that might have gotten lost in the whirlwind:
• Nady finished 4 for 7 with four RBIs, extending to three years a streak of highly successful openers. Two years ago, with the New York Mets, he was 4 for 4. Last year, he homered off Brad Lidge in Houston in the ninth inning to lift the Pirates to a 4-2 victory.
• McLouth was 3 for 5 with a walk and four RBIs.
• Nady and McLouth became the first Pirates teammates to homer together in consecutive openers, perhaps in franchise history. It was confirmed last night that it had not happened in the past 50 years. The most recent member of the Pirates to homer in back-to-back openers was Barry Bonds in 1988-89.
• Ryan Doumit, the surprise starter at catcher, and Freddy Sanchez each had three hits, too.
• The Pirates were 5 for 22 with runners in scoring position, and three of those hits did not result in runs because two runners were held up at third, another -- Jack Wilson -- thrown out at the plate on a bullet throw from Kotsay in the fourth.
• Ian Snell, in his first opening assignment, allowed four runs on seven hits, including a long McCann home run in the fourth, in six innings.
• Wilson began a spectacular double play in the fifth, snagging Teixeira's vicious one-hop smash to his right, flipping a backhand -- and long -- toss to Sanchez, who turned and fired to LaRoche.
• Tyler Yates, making his Pirates debut, pitched a dominant seventh that included three sizzling fastballs -- 96, 96 and 97 mph -- to fan Jones, his former teammate.
The reaction in the clubhouse appeared to resemble that of Russell.
"Unreal," Wilson said.
"I'm so messed up right now, I don't know what just happened," LaRoche said. "But can guarantee you this much: John Russell will never forget this game."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published April 1, 2008 4:00 AM