Steve Avery does not look very far ahead. Shoot, the 23-year-old Atlanta Brave pitcher tugs his cap so low on his head it's a wonder he can find his way to the mound. He has to tilt his chin up and his head back just to see his infielders gobble up all those grounders behind him. "Just away to keep focused," he says. "It's just me and the catcher. Hey, I don't want to have my hat up like I'm having my picture taken out there."
"The guy is a practical joker all the time," Atlanta catcher Greg Olson says, "but when that cap comes down, watch out." Even when pitching coach Leo Mazzone needs to visit Avery on the mound to buy time for relievers warming up in the Braves' bullpen, he does so with the timidity of a postman headed for the Bumsteads' mailbox. Then Mazzone tells Avery, "Just act like you're listening to me. I'll leave in a couple of minutes. Promise."
Mazzone knows better than to pose a question to Avery, especially to inquire about his stamina. "I hate that," Avery says. "If I'm out there, I'm fine."
So how's Avery doing? No need to ask. He kept Mazzone safely in the dugout through two complete-game victories last week. First he beat the first-place San Francisco Giants 5-3 on Aug. 23 to open a stunning Brave three-game sweep at Candlestick Park. So dominant was Avery in that game that he retired the final 11 batters, the last six with nothing but fastballs. Then last Saturday he dismissed the Chicago Cubs 5-1 with just 89 pitches, only 21 of which were called balls. It was the Braves' 21st victory in Avery's past 23 starts.
Hold on to your hats. Led by Avery's bravery, second-place Atlanta last week seized momentum in the National League West by chopping 3½ games off the Giants' lead in six days to close within four games, the closest they have been to San Francisco since May 29. Said the Giants' Barry Bonds, "With the recognition the Braves get worldwide as America's team, it seems like that even though we're in first place, we're chasing them."
San Francisco could dispel that notion this week in another three-game series with the Braves, this time in Atlanta. Thereafter the Giants will have 29 games remaining, none of them with the Braves.
What enabled Atlanta to establish an edge over San Francisco in every place but the standings was a glaring disparity in starting pitching. Atlanta's four aces—Avery (15-4 through last weekend), Tom Glavine (16-5), Greg Maddux (15-9) and John Smoltz (13-9)—have been almost unbeatable since the All-Star break, going 24-5 while chewing up chunks of innings. If you're going to beat the Braves, you had better get into their bullpen or be fortunate enough to draw their fifth starter, a spot Pete Smith and Kent Mercker had filled with a combined 3-9 mark.
"At the end of the year, we may make some of the big expectations about us having a bunch of 20-game winners come true," says Glavine, who, in beating the Giants 6-4 on Aug. 24 and the Cubs 8-2 on Sunday, also won twice last week. "We still have a shot at three 20-game winners. If we do that, it'll go a long way toward us winning this thing. We've pitched well all year, but since we got Fred McGriff, we've been scoring runs consistently."
After Sunday's victory the Braves were 28-9 since McGriff arrived on July 20 in a trade with the San Diego Padres, leaving San Francisco manager Dusty Baker to observe, "I'm just glad they didn't get him a month earlier." Well, Atlanta did try to get McGriff as long ago as the eve of Game 1 of the 1992 World Series, when a representative of the Braves told San Diego that Atlanta was "strongly interested in McGriff." The Padres showed no inclination to move the slugging first baseman at that time or upon subsequent overtures made by the Braves in May and June, because San Diego general manager Joe McIlvaine was resisting the wishes of cost-cutting owner Tom Werner to move the high-priced contracts of both McGriff and third baseman Gary Sheffield.
That stance by McIlvaine contributed to his decision to leave the club on June 9. Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz then was able to swing a deal with MeIlvaine's replacement, Randy Smith, to get McGriff for three prospects.
"He synergized our lineup," Schuerholz says of McGriff, who through Sunday had hit .312 and 13 home runs since coming to the Braves. Ron Gant, David Justice and Terry Pendleton—the Braves' biggest bats—had batted .252 collectively before McGriff arrived, but they had hit .305 since then. "He's made a huge difference for the pitchers, too," says Glavine, "because we know we'll get runs."
San Francisco, meanwhile, suddenly had such pitching troubles that they summoned 21-year-old righthander Salomon Torres from Triple A Phoenix to make his big league debut Sunday in the face of a four-game losing streak, the Giants' longest of the season. Torres's arrival was occasioned by Trevor Wilson's departure from the first game against the Braves with inflammation in his left shoulder. Torres is a promising pitcher whose forte is supposed to be his location, though you would not have known that when he showed up at the wrong terminal in Phoenix and missed his flight to San Francisco.
Torres arrived in time to see Bryan Hickerson last only 5‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings in the Giants' second loss to Atlanta. That turned out to be the longest effort by a San Francisco starter in the Giants' tailspin, which ended Sunday when Torres went seven innings against the Florida Marlins, yielding three runs on five hits to win 9-3. Before then Baker was certain Billy Swift could stop the slide and the Braves in the final game of that series. "This is our man who stops all slumps," Baker announced. But only seven pitches and five batters into the game, Atlanta led 3-0, and the fans seated in the Stick's outfield had caught as many of Swift's balls as had catcher Kirt Manwaring: two, courtesy of back-to-back home runs by McGriff and Justice. The Braves mashed four more home runs, with McGriff and Justice doubling up again and catcher Damon Berryhill winning the longest-drive contest with a blast of 425 feet, in a 9-1 rout won by Maddux.
The Giants never looked so vulnerable as they did that day. Forty percent of their original starting rotation, Wilson and Bud Black, spent the afternoon in the Los Angeles office of Dr. Frank Jobe having their injured arms attended to. First baseman Will Clark limped off the field and onto the disabled list with his right knee as crooked as Lombard Street after he collided with Atlanta shortstop Jeff Blauser. And Swift, who had never thrown 175 innings in a season, announced he had "a tired arm" after his odometer hit 183⅖.
Baker and pitching coach Dick Pole have done a splendid job in nursing both Swift and John Burkett through the season. Those two pitchers together completed only two of their first 55 starts while going 35-12. But both Swift and Burkett were staggering last week, with Burkett having been tagged for 28 hits and 19 runs in 13 innings over his past three starts.
Says Baker of his rotation, "I'm concerned about it, but it's not like someone's going to beam me down a pitcher from outer space." The Giants used more ordinary means to obtain Jim Deshaies (11-13 and loser of six straight) in a trade last Saturday with the Minnesota Twins.
On the other hand the Atlanta starters have been as good as advertised. Their main worry of late is getting on the clubhouse golf course, a popular two-hole, 60-foot layout. "It's tough getting a tee time," Glavine says. The pitchers, who have been known to putt around right up until their starts, are staging a more serious competition for the Cy Young Award, even if they prefer not to discuss it.
Avery was especially reluctant when reporters mentioned that topic, though his 4-1 mark and 2.22 ERA in August had put him high on the leader board. "Oh, no, you don't," he warned reporters. "You guys started mentioning that stuff to Burkett, and he's had three straight tough ones. You've got enough stuff on your mind in a pennant race than to worry about individual stuff like that." Though it would be a fitting cap to his season, Avery simply can't see that far ahead.