The Atlanta Braves' batting order last Saturday, as posted on the clubhouse blackboard, was Garr, Millan, Mathews, Aaron, Carty, Torre, Alou, Logan and Spahn. It was only a joke, of course, perpetrated by the injured utility man, Jerry Royster, but it's a pity those legendary old Braves couldn't have taken the field, since the actual lineup of Butler, Ramirez, Washington, Murphy, Chambliss, Jacoby, Hubbard, Benedict and Niekro went out and coughed up another one, 6-2 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. If nothing else, Royster's prank did demonstrate one positive characteristic of the current Braves: They may have lost their third baseman, a whole bunch of games and their lead in the National League West in the past three weeks, but they haven't lost their sense of humor.
Good thing, too. On Aug. 13, Atlanta was 6½ games ahead of Los Angeles. At week's end, the Braves were 2½ behind, having lost 10 of their last 13—including six straight last week at home—and, since the now fateful 13th, 14 of 20. Not that the Braves have been playing all that horrendously; it's just that their starting pitching, the surprise of the league in early season, has apparently gone, as they say, south—no mean trick if you're playing in Georgia. In the Braves' first four games last week, their starters lasted barely four innings apiece, giving up 37 hits and 19 runs. From Aug. 13 through Sept. 4, the Braves' starting pitchers had a 5.60 ERA. Among the offenders was Len Barker, whom the Braves acquired from Cleveland on Aug. 28 and promptly signed to a five-year, $4.2 million contract. Three days later Barker, who once pitched a perfect game for the Indians and was to be the bellwether of the Braves' staff in the stretch drive, established in his first start that he fit right in with his new colleagues: He allowed five runs on 10 hits in 4‚Öî innings of a 6-3 loss to the Cardinals. "Maybe I was trying too hard," he said later, echoing a familiar clubhouse sentiment.
Maybe that's what all the Braves' starters have been doing. "I think they've been forcing themselves to do more than they can," says Rube Walker, who, with Bob Gibson, forms Atlanta's pitching coaching corps. Whatever the starters are trying to do, they've been nullifying some pretty fair play by the rest of the Braves. On Thursday, against the Cardinals, Atlanta ran the bases with bravado, Third Baseman Randy Johnson actually stealing second while Catcher Darrell Porter, who had just caught a pop-up, tossed the ball back to Pitcher Neil Allen. Then, Starter Pascual Perez, who hasn't won a game since Aug. 7, came asunder in a six-run Cardinal fourth. On Friday against Pittsburgh, Glenn Hubbard tied the score at 1-1 in the fifth inning, dashing home on a short wild pitch, but in the sixth, Braves Starter Ken Dayley gave up a two-run homer to Dave Parker, and the Pirates went on to win 4-1. On Saturday Phil Niekro seemed to get the pitching back on track by going 5‚Öì scoreless innings while allowing Pittsburgh only one hit. But Niekro also walked eight in that relatively brief stretch, and so he had to go. Too bad, because the normally stalwart but recently overworked reliever, Steve Bedrosian, allowed six runs in the seventh, four on a grand slam by Pinch Hitter Mike Easler.
And so it goes. The pitchers shouldn't bear all the blame, of course. The breaks, particularly the one Third Baseman Bob Horner sustained to his right wrist on Aug. 15, have also gone against Atlanta. Horner, whose 20 homers represented exactly a fifth of the Braves' total, is out for the season. His immediate replacement, the impish Royster, survived Horner by only a game and a half, going down with a torn deltoid ligament in his right ankle. "I was Plan B," says Royster, who returns to the lineup this weekend, "so they had to go to Plan C." That included the deployment of rookies Johnson and Brook Jacoby, the latter summoned hastily from the Richmond Triple A farm team. Brett Butler, who has been one of Atlanta's mainstays all year—its leader in triples (13) and stolen bases (31)—and Jacoby are basically lame-duck Braves, for both are strongly rumored to be among the "players named later" in the Barker trade. Butler, particularly, has been receiving tumultuous cheers lately from Atlanta fans, who, after Barker's disappointing debut, have demonstrated a taste for irony.
Many Atlanta fans and, it seems, some Braves feel the real reason for the Braves' descent is the removal on Aug. 6 of mascot Chief Noc-A-Homa's tepee from its location in the seats beyond the leftfield fence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Braves are annually obliged to evict the Chief at the start of the Falcons' exhibition season, since his abode occupies some 250 choice football seats. Nobody seemed to notice the tepee's departure until last year, when, with it gone, the Braves went into an even more calamitous slide than this year's, losing 19 of 21—including 11 in a row—from the end of July until Aug. 18. Bedrosian, who is of Armenian descent and not expert in Chippewa—Noc-A-Homa's tribe—lore, wonders if maybe "the Indian gods are angry" over this modern-day rousting out of a Native American. Anyway, Noc-A-Homa-less, the Braves had dropped 11 of 13 home games. On the night of Barker's debut, Atlanta's management did erect a smaller, portable version of the tepee beyond the fence. It apparently did little to assuage the offended deities, since the Braves lost four more in succession.
But neither the Atlanta players nor their doggedly optimistic manager, Joe Torre, is discouraged by the sorry occurrences of the past few weeks. "Last year was an experience you couldn't buy," says veteran First Baseman Bob Watson, recalling the team's recovering from 1982's losing streak to beat the Dodgers for the division championship on thermal day of the season. And Torre, whose positive nature makes Drs. Peale and Pangloss seem downright Kierkegaardian, daily infuses his losers with the will, if not the skill, to win. "We're not whipped puppies," Torre says. "We can't dwell on what's wrong, only on what we have to do. I believe in these people. We're all doing the best we can, and you can't ask for more."
The only sore point with Torre appears to be the tepee and its supposed hex. Glancing out from the batting cage to the little tent in leftfield one day last week, he muttered, mostly to himself, "We ought to circle the wagons and burn that sucker down." Boy, oh boy, if you're looking for a losing streak....