Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone
set the order of their playoff rotation long before they knew
who their opponent would be. No one on the coaching staff
bothered running computer reports about which potential foes hit
lefthanders better or how the Atlanta pitchers had fared against
those teams. Cox and Mazzone, in fact, may have put more thought
into their breakfast choice than their rotation the day they
lined up righthanders John Smoltz and Greg Maddux followed by
lefthander Tom Glavine to pitch the first three games of their
National League Division Series, which was scheduled to begin on
"It was pretty simple, really," Mazzone says. "Smoltz earned the
opener for the way he's pitched all year, Maddux is Maddux, and
who else would you rather have pitching a big game than Tom
Glavine, and he's going third. They're a great pitching staff,
so what the hell?"
It so happened that the Los Angeles Dodgers, the National League
wild card, drew the short straw--and defending world champion
Atlanta. Doesn't matter. Any postseason opponent of the Braves
must deal with the same huge task: Find a way to overcome three
starters who have combined for a .594 career winning percentage
(418-286), including .651 this year (54-29); six straight Cy
Young Awards (counting the one Smoltz is almost certain to
receive after this season); two postseason MVP awards (Smoltz,
1992 Championship Series; Glavine, '95 World Series); and the
experience of 229 1/3 playoff innings over 35 pressure-packed
October starts. That's why Atlanta is the team to beat again
"If we get beat," Glavine says, "it will probably be because we
got outpitched. Sure, you'd like to win 10-0, but you don't
expect that this time of year. If the old saying is still
true--that pitching and defense win championships--I like our
chances as well as anybody's."
The vulnerability of supposed great teams is often exposed in
postseason matchups. The Oakland A's of the Bash Brothers days,
for instance, could be shut down with good righthanded power
pitching, as the Dodgers did in 1988 and the Cincinnati Reds did
two years later. The free-swinging 1995 Cleveland Indians could
be contained with good off-speed pitching, particularly from
lefthanders, which is what the Braves threw at them last year.
Even Atlanta has its soft spots. Most of the moves made by
general manager John Schuerholz this season haven't panned out.
Lefthander Denny Neagle and third baseman Terry Pendleton,
obtained in August trades, have bombed, and rookie outfielder
Andruw Jones, the minor league player of the year who was
promoted the same month, has fizzled. The left side of the
infield is unsettled.
In the postseason the Braves could also be in trouble if the
starters don't pitch long enough to turn the game over directly
to closer Mark Wohlers (2-4, 3.03 ERA, 39 saves). The
middle-relief corps--Brad Clontz (6-3, 5.69 ERA), Greg McMichael
(5-3, 3.22 ERA) and Terrell Wade (5-0, 2.97 ERA)--can be
middling. And the bullpen has no lefthander experienced in
getting tough late-inning outs.
What's more, the Dodgers present Atlanta with its biggest
challenge. If L.A.'s starting rotation (righthanders Ramon
Martinez, Ismael Valdes and Hideo Nomo), the best outside of
Atlanta's, can keep the games close, the Dodgers, who have the
stronger bullpen, will have the edge. L.A. was the only playoff
club to win its season series against Atlanta (7-5).
But the main obstacle for any team hoping to exploit the Braves'
weaknesses is to get through Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine--
whatever the order. "The only chance a manager gets to set his
rotation is in the first round," Glavine says. "After that
you're at the mercy of whether you go three, four or five games,
off days, things like that. So maybe a manager doesn't have his
big gun pitching where he wants him. With us, it doesn't matter."
This year the Braves' staff broke the major league record for
strikeouts (1,245) in a season. What is more astounding than
eclipsing the mark set by the 1969 Houston Astros (1,221) is
doing so while allowing the fewest walks in the league. The
Atlanta staff is so good that when the Braves scored three or
four runs in a game, they were 26-12 (.684). Moreover, Atlanta
enters this postseason better armed than in '93, when a fierce
pennant race with the San Francisco Giants drained the team, or
in '95, when a weary Smoltz sputtered at the close of his first
season following elbow surgery. Here's why the Braves' rotation
is stronger than in its past two postseasons:
--Smoltz is pitching better than he ever has. He already had a
reputation as a clutch postseason pitcher (5-1 with a 2.76 ERA
in 13 playoff starts), but, Smoltz says, "as much as I've prided
myself on the postseason, this is the best I've ever felt going
in. Last year I was so out of gas that throughout the playoffs I
didn't know if I could make my next start." Always wicked
against righthanded batters, Smoltz this season has neutralized
lefthanders better (they hit .221 against him) because of an
upgraded forkball. He is further emboldened by his Atlanta-
record 24 wins. As he at last gets his chance to play king of
Atlanta's hill, Smoltz has never been more confident or more
--Maddux is fresh. After the Braves clinched their fifth
division title in six years, on Sept. 22, Maddux, who has won
the Cy Young four straight years, was allowed to cruise through
seven tune-up innings over his final two starts. "My legs and
arm feel great," he says, "like I had a week off." While
Maddux's record (15-11, 2.72 ERA) appears ordinary by his
standards, he would have won a fourth straight ERA title if not
for a phenomenal season by the Florida Marlins' Kevin Brown
(1.89). Maddux faced 978 batters this season and--excluding his
first season (1986), when he appeared in only six games--walked
a career-low 17 unintentionally. He received two runs or less in
13 starts, losing three times 2-1 and twice 3-2. "A pitcher has
to find a way to win some of those games," Maddux says. "I
didn't do that. It's the difference between being 18-8 and 15-11."
--A pitcher--Glavine--who could be the ace of just about any
other staff but is the third starter. Like Maddux, Glavine
(15-10) put together a somewhat tepid record, but he had a 2.98
ERA, which was better than his career mark of 3.46. "I look at
it this way," Glavine says. "We pitch well and we play good
defense. If we mix in a good offense, that improves our chances."
Actually this is the most potent offense Atlanta has taken into
the postseason. In the National League only the Reds and the
Colorado Rockies scored more runs, and only the Rockies hit more
home runs this season than the Braves, who batted 20 points
higher than last year. Yet the Atlanta offense is not
resourceful, having scored a higher percentage (26%) of its runs
by way of the long ball than any other team in the league. The
game plan, never better executed than in the clinching World
Series game against Cleveland last year, is to hold down the
opponent with superlative starting pitching until somebody goes
deep. Leftfielder Ryan Klesko (34 dingers), infielder Chipper
Jones (30), centerfielder Marquis Grissom (23) and catcher Javy
Lopez (23) all hit career highs in home runs in '96.
"We're not going to steal a lot of bases or create a lot of
runs," Smoltz says, "so we're kind of programmed to play and
pitch the same way no matter what the score is. We've been
through a lot of stress, especially in the postseason with the
majority of games being one-run games. It's like playoff time in
the NBA. You don't give a layup. Every batter represents a rally."
Says first baseman Fred McGriff, who drove in a career-high 107
runs despite having slugging rightfielder David Justice out of
the lineup most of the year because of an injured shoulder,
"From the standpoint of the fans and the media, the story has
always been about the starting pitching around here. The Four
Aces [including lefthander Steve Avery] this and that. I think
most of the time the Braves' offense doesn't get credit for
getting the big hits."
With shortstop Jeff Blauser disabled by a broken hand in July,
Schuerholz tried to improve the offense when he reobtained
Pendleton from the Marlins on Aug. 13. The Braves then switched
Chipper Jones from third base to shortstop. However, the
36-year-old Pendleton proved to be an easy out too often,
batting .204 for Atlanta and finishing the season in a 2-for-30
free fall. "The question that has to be asked," Glavine says,
"is, Did they get him just to plug a hole with Blauser out, or
did they get him for the postseason?"
Not even Cox was ready to answer that last week. He said he
wasn't sure if he preferred Pendleton and Jones on the left side
of his infield or Jones and Blauser--and, if need be, he could
easily switch the alignment during the postseason, anyway. For
his part, Jones, a competent shortstop but a better third
baseman, expressed no concern. "I know I'll be hitting third,"
he says. "That's all I care about."
Then again, Jones's offense suffered after Pendleton arrived.
Jones batted 28 points lower (.289) after the trade and hit only
five home runs in 156 at bats. Jones even started one game in
rightfield, but Atlanta quickly abandoned that idea by allowing
Andruw Jones to share the position with fellow rookie Jermaine
Dye. However, after providing an initial burst of offense,
Andruw Jones played himself out of a regular role in the
postseason by closing out the year with two hits in his last 25
at bats to finish at .217.
"It's a very, very difficult call for Bobby," Maddux says about
the infield alignment. "Even though I think all of us are
comfortable whichever way he goes, he's going to get
second-guessed by a lot of people."
Of course Cox's hope is that Maddux and the other starters pitch
well enough so that it doesn't matter if Sonny Jackson is
playing shortstop and Larvell Blanks is playing third. If Cox
uses a fourth starter, he can pick between Neagle, who had a
5.59 ERA for Atlanta in six starts after a 3.05 mark with the
Pittsburgh Pirates, or Avery, who had an injury-plagued season
but prefers throwing in cool weather and has the postseason
record to prove it (5-2, 2.88 ERA in 75 innings).
The Braves entered the Division Series against Los Angeles a
rested, relaxed team. Says Glavine, "Last year at this time we
were starting to wonder how many chances we were going to get to
win a world championship, and if it doesn't happen, will we be
sitting around 10 years from now retired with a big, empty
feeling? This time it's more relaxing trying to repeat than
trying to get that monkey off our backs."
That was never more apparent than last Saturday in Montreal as
the Braves prepared for a meaningless game against the Expos.
Although Atlanta would play the winner of a series between Los
Angeles and the San Diego Padres, nobody bothered to tune in
that game on any of the clubhouse televisions. Instead, all
three sets carried college football, with Ohio State-Notre Dame
drawing a particularly large crowd.
Later, when Glavine was asked about a preferred opponent, he
shook his head and said, "No, it doesn't really matter who we
No other club could say that with the same conviction.