Five Aces

THERE ARE NO SURE BETS IN PITCHING, BUT THE BRAVES HAVE DEALT THEMSELVES QUITE A HAND
April 04, 1993

Five is a familiar number in sports. High five. Five on five. Five Olympic rings. Except in golf. Fore! Plus fours. Foursomes. Most golf courses will not allow a fivesome. "But when you have the last two Cy Young winners in your group," says Atlanta Brave pitcher Pete Smith, "it isn't a problem."

"Is that a rule?" asks Greg Maddux, the newest Brave pitcher and the Cy Young winner in the National League last season. "I hadn't heard that. I always assumed we got on because the courses weren't crowded."

Wrong. This fivesome of Braves gets on because it may be the finest five-man pitching rotation ever assembled, and what Ted Turner has joined together, let no course ranger put asunder.

This fivesome gets on because it includes not only the last two Cy Young winners in the National League (Maddux and Tom Glavine) but also the last two National League playoff MVPs (John Smoltz and Steve Avery). It gets on because its fifth starter (Smith) is the finest fifth since Beethoven's, a man who went 7-0 with a 2.05 ERA after joining the rotation on Aug. 2.

This fivesome gets on because it is more exclusive than any country club where it might play. Charlie Liebrandt won 30 games for the Braves over the last two years. He was traded to the Texas Rangers for a minor league third baseman after Maddux left the Chicago Cubs to sign with Atlanta as a free agent last December. The first pick in the expansion draft in November was a 23-year-old Atlanta pitcher, David Nied, who went unprotected after finishing 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA for the Braves last summer. "It was an honor just to be a part of that staff for two months," says Nied. The former No. 7 starter for Atlanta is now the No. 1 starter for the Colorado Rockies.

This fivesome gets on because it won a combined 73 games last season, as many or more games than eight teams won last year. The five's combined ERA was 2.68 Maddux beat Glavine in the Cy Young voting. Smoltz was the league's strikeout leader. Avery was the youngest regular member of a rotation in the majors and became the only player in history to start eight postseason games before turning 23. As for Smith, well, he hasn't lost in the majors since July 15,1991, when he was beaten by...Greg Maddux.

That is why this fivesome gets on anywhere it wants—not because the courses aren't crowded. Hell, the courses are crowded. "Well," says Maddux, chastened, "we do let people play through when it's slow."

Live at Five

The Brave camp in West Palm Beach, Fla., was literally a media circus this spring: Among the journalists seeking to interview the pitchers were midgets from Jupiter (grade school TV reporters from Jupiter, Fla.) and a professional wrestler (filing incoherently for superstation TBS). Everyone, it seemed, wanted to go live at five with the five-man rotation and ask the urgent questions. For instance: Which one of them will win the Cy Young? "If we can divide the award into quarters, we may have four guys going after it this year," Brave manager Bobby Cox told the boys from The Nashville Network. The Nashville Network?

Interest in this staff is unprecedented, in large measure because the Braves may duplicate a feat last achieved in the Precambrian, precabled age of 1971. That was the season that the Baltimore Oriole rotation—Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson—begat four 20-game winners. (Only the 1920 White Sox can claim the same achievement.)

Can any staff accomplish that again? None but the Braves. "It makes for nice conversation, doesn't it?" says Brave general manager John Schuerholz. Indeed it does make for nice conversation, which is why we reserved a table for five for the men from Atlanta and asked them to chew on the subject of their collective greatness. Lord knows, it's a five-course meal.

The Quint-Essentials

A rotation of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz-Avery-Smith goes right-left-right-left-right, like a flurry of punches or an Arthur Murray dance lesson, like power and grace, like the fastball of Smoltz and the two-seam changeup of Glavine. "We're not narrowly focused on hard-throwing righties or hard-throwing lefties," says Smoltz. "We're solid all over."

What's more, these Brave young men are heartbreakingly young. At 27, Smith is four weeks older than Glavine, who is three weeks older than Maddux. Smoltz is 25 and Avery but 22. Most important, though, the five have been locked up by Brave management, and Schuerholz has swallowed the key. Maddux ($28 million) is signed through the '97 season, Glavine ($20.5 million) and Smoltz ($16 million) through '96. Smith is ineligible for free agency until after the '94 season, and Avery until after the '96 season. "I'm the one who is locked up," says Avery, laughing. "If those other guys are locked up, they don't mind being in jail."

"Barring a trade, we're going to be together for at least four years," says Smoltz ominously. "The Braves don't want to create a team that wins one World Series and then sees everybody jump ship." The Braves want to win several World Series, then regally retire the historic ship—a baseball Queen Mary, if you will. Consider that without Maddux (sidebar at right), who has won more games than any pitcher in the National League in the last five years, Atlanta has already been to two consecutive Octoberfests. The eight World Series games that the Braves have lost in the last two years have been by one run, one run, one run, one run, one run, one run, one run and one run, respectively. It is impossible to get closer to two rings without actually answering the phone, and the Braves know it, thank you very little. "It would be disappointing if we don't win the World Series," says Avery, who is, make no mistake, talking about this year's World Series. "We don't want to be the Buffalo Bills."

Who do they want to be? "I am in no way comparing our team to Notre Dame," says Smoltz. "But when everybody plays Notre Dame, they're not just playing a college football team, you know?"

The Braves are not just a baseball team. On any other baseball team, for instance, a pitcher in a five-man rotation (page 42) will throw from a mound once between starts. Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone has his pitchers throw twice between starts, to blend the best feature of the obsolescent four-man rotation (staying sharp) with the best feature of the five-man rotation (staying healthy). "A pitcher always has one dead day in a five-man rotation," says Mazzone. "What does he usually do? He plays catch in the outfield. Well, why not have him play catch with someone squatting behind home plate?"

Given that the Brave pitchers are as healthy as Mueslix—in the last two years only Smith has had any kind of arm trouble (tendinitis in his right shoulder)—why wouldn't every team choose to follow Atlanta's regimen? The fear, of course, is that the wealthy weenieboys of today will wear themselves out if they throw too often. But Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Avery have thrown more innings than any other starting staff in baseball over the last two seasons. Maddux led the league in innings pitched (268) last year and has averaged 251 innings a season for the last five. What's more, no staff has ever pitched as many postseason innings in consecutive years as Atlanta's has. "But they're efficient," says Mazzone, unworried about overworking the staff. "Bobby Cox doesn't leave them out there for 140, 150 pitches. They get the job done with a lot less."

And less is more. And more (innings) or less (hits) is, more or less, what the Brave pitchers are always trying to achieve. "We all want each other to do well," says Glavine. "And we all want to do better than the last guy. No question, we all want to outdo each other."

So as the pitchers competed among themselves to throw the most innings last season, Smoltz good-naturedly lobbied on the bench to have Glavine yanked from a Brave blowout. And as they competed for the most starts, Avery good-naturedly lobbied Mazzone to let him have the crucial first start after the All-Star break. And as they competed to yield the fewest hits....

Glavine threw a two-hit shutout in their season opener last year. He recalls Day 2 starter Smoltz telling him afterward, "Thanks for leaving me an out. Now I just have to throw a one-hitter, not a no-hitter." It was third starter Avery who was supposed to throw the no-no in the home opener.

"Of course, I got shelled," says the guileless Avery, who laughs and then shakes his head. "I don't know how many times I was supposed to keep a shutout streak alive last year." Each time, Avery's staff-mates made him acutely aware of the stakes of his start.

"We all know we can kid each other about these things," says Glavine. Says Smoltz, "People don't want to believe that we get along as well as we do, that there are no jealousies among us. But there aren't."

Smoltz was speaking while sitting in a dugout on a sunlit day in Florida last month. And on a clear day you can see forever, or at least through the end of September. "I was just thinking about what we can do," Smoltz was saying. "I don't see us losing two or. three games in a row. I'm sure it will happen, but...."

Will it? Which Brave pitcher is an opposing team supposed to beat in a three-game series? There is no answer, only the question. "It's fun to talk about these things," says Maddux. "This kind of speculation is one of the reasons baseball is a great game. I understand, given this team's past performance, that it's hard not to speculate."

That past is prologue to this enticing chapter in baseball history. In it we see Atlanta assemble its dynastic staff in....

Five Easy Pieces

Cox was named the Brave general manager in October 1985, just in time to pooper-scoop away the evidence of a season in which Atlanta went 66-96. Nineteen-year-old lefthanded hockey player Tom Glavine was in a Class A cupboard when Cox arrived. Now, Cox is incapable of blowing his own horn, but, mercifully, many others are happy to play Louis Armstrong for him. "There was a decision, put in place by Bobby and his people, to rebuild by drafting and developing pitchers," says Schuerholz, who took over as G.M. in 1990, the year Cox became field manager, "and not to trade pitchers for a quick fix. It is a great credit to Bobby that he didn't make trades while everybody was lusting after these guys." But Cox did make trades. Within two months of being named general manager, he traded relief pitcher Steve Bedrosian (and outfielder Milt Thompson) to the Philadelphia Phillies for Double A pitcher Pete Smith (and catcher Ozzie Virgil). In 1986 Smith would go 1-8 at Double A Greenville and have shoulder surgery. In 1987 Bedrosian would win the Cy Young in Philadelphia—after which Cox would become reluctant to trade in his car, much less make another pitching trade.

"Glavine and I both came up in '87," recalls Smith, who has recovered from the shoulder ailments that slowed his rise to a permanent spot in the rotation. "We made the rotation together in '88. They told us, 'We're going to give the ball to the young guys and see what happens.' Which was good. The other side is, if we had done really bad...."

They would now both be, say, Derek Lilliquist—one of many young Brave phenoms who were stockpiled and never really phenommed. Glavine went 7-17 and Smith went 7-15 in 1988. But these were good records, given the Braves' improbable, expansionesque mark of 54-106 in '88. When you are this putrid, you have nothing to lose in July by bringing up a 21-year-old like Smoltz, who was 10-5 at Triple A Richmond.

Smoltz had been acquired from the Detroit Tigers 11 months earlier, in August 1987, in exchange for 36-year-old pitcher Doyle Alexander. This was an instant-gratification buy for Detroit, which rode Alexander to the division title that fall but lost in the playoffs and was left with...what? The Braves, meanwhile, had a future Cy Young favorite. "A lot of people are predicting me for it," Smoltz acknowledges today. "And I don't plan to lead the league in predictions."

In the middle of that hideous, glorious summer of 1988, the Braves made All-Hemisphere high schooler Steve Avery the No. 3 pick in the nation. This was a no-brainer: Avery chugged a cup of decaf in the minors and joined the rotation in 1990.

Let all of these ingredients simmer for two seasons, then fold in some defense. When Schuerholz was hired, he signed third baseman Terry Pendleton and first baseman Sid Bream to solidify the corners. He added Deion Sanders and Otis Nixon to an outfield that already included Ron Gant and David Justice. "The reason this team wins is defense and pitching," says Maddux, an impartial observer until this season. "These outfielders catch everything. Doubles and triples are outs. I noticed the same thing in Chicago last year. Everybody talked about how the pitching staff there got better, but the defense had improved dramatically behind us."

Ah, yes: Maddux. Last winter Schuerholz offered Maddux $6 million less than the New York Yankees offered him. Naturally Maddux accepted the Atlanta bid. The major reason: "This team's ability to win," he says.

"The public speculation was that we would sign [outfielder Barry] Bonds," says Schuerholz. "But actually a starting pitcher is what we wanted. Because while we feel we now have a prospect at every position at [Triple A] Richmond, our pitching is no longer deep there."

At every position at Triple A, the Braves have a prospect. Is that a frightening prospect?

Take Five
Smoltz is 25 (5 x 5). Fifth starter Smith wears number 25 (5 x 5). Avery wears 33, which, when multiplied by five, gives the sum of all five pitchers' uniform numbers (165). Avery and Glavine, of course, have the Roman numeral V in their surnames: Add the two V's together, and you get the last letter in the last name Maddux. Coincidence? Perhaps.

Five-Irons

Smoltz can blow smoke like Smoltz can throw smoke. That may be the real reason the Brave rotation can play any golf course it wants as a fivesome. "Smoltzie," says Avery, "is the ultimate smoozer. Schmoozer? Whatever. Smoltzie could talk his way into an all-women's club."

Now that the season is upon them, however, these Braves will no longer golf as a fivesome. Whichever pitcher is making the next start will not be allowed to play golf. Other restrictions apply. "We're all married except for Pete Smith," Avery noted during spring training. "So we play when our wives let us."

So how often do you play?

"Pretty much every day."

"I'd say Smoltzie is the best golfer," says Smith. "Because when you ask Smoltzie, he will tell you he is."

"You won't have to ask him," says Avery. "He will open the conversation by telling you."

"Well," says Smoltz, all but blushing. "Right now I'm playing the best. But I've had more practice than the other guys."

Smoltz, a four handicapper, is sandbagging like a man waiting for floodwaters, a strategy that's not lost on five-handicap-per Maddux. The first time Maddux golfed with his hypercompetitive new teammates this spring, he fired a gaudy but imprudent 71. "Definitely not the way to go if he wanted to win some money this year," says Avery. "Now he's shooting 80s, 85s, trying to find a sucker. But nobody's falling for it."

"Everything just happened to go right that first day," Maddux insists, unconvincingly. "Every time I hit a bad shot, it came back to the fairway. I'm no better than any of the other guys."

Like Maddux, Smoltz will get a golf wager only by handicapping himself severely. Last month Smoltz bet Glavine that he could shoot a 90 using only a seven-iron and a putter. When Glavine quickly accepted, Smoltz said, Well, maybe a 92....

Which logically leads into '93. Perhaps we should wait until each of the five has pitched a game before we call this rotation the greatest of all time. "Maybe that would be more appropriate," says Schuerholz. "In fact, it might be most appropriate to wait until the end of the season and see if they've done anything."

Then we will see if the fifth day of Christmas comes in October for these five. Then we will see if they get five golden rings.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRATHE ATLANTA STAFF OF (FROM TOP) AVERY, SMOLTZ, SMITH, MADDUX AND GLAVINE IS ALREADY BEING TOUTED AS THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME PHOTORONALD C. MODRAGLAVINE
Age: 27
Throws left
ERA in '92: 2.76
Key pitches: circle change, fastball
A 20-game winner the past two seasons
PHOTORONALD C. MODRASMOLTZ
Age: 25
Throws right
ERA in '92: 2.85
Key pitches: slider, fastball
NL strikeout leader (215) in '92
PHOTORONALD C. MODRAMADDUX
Age: 26
Throws right
ERA in '92: 2.18
Key pitches: fastball, changeup
Most wins in NL the last five years (87)
PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAVERY
Age: 22 Throws left
ERA in '92: 3.20
Key pitches: fastball, changeup
Has 29 wins in the past two season
PHOTORONALD C. MODRASMITH
Age: 27
Throws right
ERA in '92: 2.05
Key pitches: changeup, slider
Unbeaten (7-0) in 11 starts last year
FIVE ILLUSTRATIONS
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)