Who Are These Guys? Closer Kerry Ligtenberg and his equally anonymous fellow relievers are refuting the notion that they're too green to help the Braves win a World Series

Aug. 24, 1998
Aug. 24, 1998

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Aug. 24, 1998

Who Are These Guys? Closer Kerry Ligtenberg and his equally anonymous fellow relievers are refuting the notion that they're too green to help the Braves win a World Series

When the Los Angeles Dodgers imperiled a 5-3 Atlanta Braves lead
last Saturday by putting two runners on base against starter
John Smoltz with no outs in the eighth inning, this is what
Braves manager Bobby Cox had to choose from in his bullpen: two
nondrafted pitchers signed out of independent leagues, a
hyperactive lefthander whom neither the Arizona Diamondbacks nor
the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had wanted in the expansion draft, a
5'10" journeyman who'd been cut from the Mexican winter league,
an aging lefty with a 7.18 ERA over the past two years who'd
been released by the Baltimore Orioles 18 days earlier and a
43-year-old formerly retired grandfather. Such a bunch of
castaways were his bullpen crew that, as Cox motioned with his
left arm toward the visitors' bullpen at Dodger Stadium, he
might as well have been calling for the professor or Mary Ann.

This is an article from the Aug. 24, 1998 issue

The familiar dichotomy in Atlanta's pitching is more pronounced
than ever. Once again the Braves have a starting staff that
recalls the greatest rotations in history and a bullpen crew
that recalls one of the greatest staples of home repair: duct
tape. Atlanta's pen is cheap, utilitarian and--here's the
surprising part--usually effective. With deposed closer Mark
Wohlers in Triple A struggling to get his head together and his
control back (box, page 30), the Braves are trying to pull off
one of the biggest patch jobs ever as they search for a second
championship in a seventh straight postseason appearance. "We're
just a bunch of also-rans who are getting the job done," says
lefthander Adam Butler of himself and his colleagues in the
Atlanta pen.

Last Saturday, Cox pulled Smoltz, one of four Braves starters
who have won 20 games in a season, and turned the two-run lead
over to John Rocker, Rudy Seanez and Kerry Ligtenberg--all of
whom were in the minor leagues at the beginning of August 1997.
They nailed down the last six outs without incident. At week's
end Rocker, Seanez and Ligtenberg were a combined 8-3 with a
2.56 ERA, 22 saves in 26 chances and an astounding 125
strikeouts in 105 2/3 innings, not to mention a .193 batting
average against, which means that collectively they whiff
batters at a better rate than Philadelphia Phillies flamethrower
Curt Schilling and are harder to hit than Atlanta ace Greg
Maddux. "They don't get hit," Maddux says. "They may give up a
run here or there, like everybody else, but they don't get hit.
They all throw hard and strike people out. I'll take my chances
with them."

Forgive the rest of baseball for snickering that the duct tape
will not hold. Only Hitchcock had a reputation for producing
more horrifying endings than the Braves' bullpen. That stigma,
however, is largely undeserved. Yes, Atlanta is 13-20 this
decade in postseason games decided by one run. Yes, its
relievers are 5-8 in the postseason. (Its starters are 28-17.)
But the pen has lost only two of the Braves' most recent 28
postseason games. The losing pitchers in Atlanta's last three
elimination-game defeats, in 1997, '96 and '93, have been Tom
Glavine once and Maddux twice. The Florida Marlins sent the
Braves home last year by getting all their wins against
Atlanta's Big Three: Maddux twice; Smoltz and Glavine, once each.

Here's a better reason to doubt the Braves' relievers: They may
prosper with a comfy lead in August--Atlanta was 14 1/2 games
ahead of the second-place New York Mets in the National League
East after Sunday's games--but can they withstand the crucible
of October? Consider: The last pitch of every World Series this
decade has been thrown by a reliever with the tying or winning
run at bat or on base. In three of those seven instances the
pitcher failed.

Assuming no miraculous recovery by Wohlers, Atlanta will hand
the closer's load over to Ligtenberg, a shy rookie righthander
who still lives with his parents in Cottage Grove, Minn. Four
years ago he nearly accepted a job as a chemical engineer with
3M, which employs his father, Norm, in its safety and security
divisions. Even if LIGHT-en-berg is easier to pronounce than to
hit, remember this: Since 1969 no team has ever made it to the
World Series with a rookie as its primary closer (chart, below).
"Come on," says one National League general manager, "would you
want to count on Kerry Ligtenberg as your closer in Game 7 of
the playoffs?"

"Why not?" snaps Glavine. "How many seventh games has [the San
Diego Padres'] Trevor Hoffman closed? What they're saying about
our bullpen now is what they said about our starters in
1991--that we had no chance of winning because of no experience.
Well, I'd rather have talent than experience."

Atlanta's bullpen figures to be fortified in October by
righthanders Russ Springer, who is on the disabled list with a
bone spur in his right elbow, and Kevin Millwood, who at the
close of last weekend was 14-6 as the Braves' fifth starter.
Meanwhile, Atlanta is so happy with Ligtenberg that general
manager John Schuerholz said after failing to get Jeff Shaw from
the Cincinnati Reds in July that he had abandoned his search for
a big-name closer.

Ligtenberg, 27, has been more automatic than the light inside a
refrigerator, which is nothing short of amazing for a guy who was
not drafted in 1994. "I was a fifth-year senior [at Minnesota]
who threw 84 miles per hour," he says. "I knew my chances were
better of hitting the lottery than of getting drafted."

Only one lab course short of his chemical engineering degree,
Ligtenberg was lining up a job at 3M when a buddy suggested they
play for the Southern Minny Stars of the Prairie League, an
independent minor league. His manager was Greg Olson, a former
Atlanta catcher. After two seasons Olson recommended that the
Braves sign Ligtenberg. They did, and they sent the Stars six
dozen baseballs and two dozen bats in gratitude. Less than two
years later, on Aug. 12, 1997, Ligtenberg was in the big
leagues. The telephone rang in the Braves' bullpen that night;
bullpen coach Ned Yost shouted, "Kerry, you're up!"

Ligtenberg stammered, "What? Me? Are you serious?"

"What'd you think?" Yost cracked. "You'd just get to travel and
watch games?"

In the last four years Ligtenberg has added as much as 10 mph to
his fastball. "I don't know why, other than lifting weights and
getting stronger," says the thick-legged Ligtenberg, who throws
with the low center of gravity and strong forward thrust of
"drop-and-drive" pitchers like the New York Yankees' David Cone.

"Kerry is such a great story," says Yost. "He was never the star
of his high school team or college team. But you never know what
can happen. It's an inspiration to keep battling. There are kids
throwing 84 right now who are saying, 'I'm going to be like Kerry
Ligtenberg.' It ain't gonna happen, but what's so amazing is that
it did happen to Kerry. I know this: We'd be in real trouble
without him."

Ligtenberg pitched well in 15 innings last season and added three
shutout innings in the National League Championship Series
against the Marlins, after which he returned to Cottage Grove and
the same room he grew up in, with posters of Kirby Puckett and
Roger Clemens still on the wall. "Hey, free rent," he says.

Ligtenberg began this season setting up Wohlers but replaced him
as the closer in June, after Wohlers strained a muscle in his
side and then mysteriously lost the ability to throw the ball
over the plate. Ligtenberg stumbled at first--the result, he says,
of being too cautious--but he has turned into an aggressive
strike-throwing machine.

At week's end, in 20 1/3 innings since June 30, Ligtenberg had
allowed only one earned run and two walks, had gone 13 for 13 in
save situations and had allowed only nine hits in 69 at bats
(.130). "He's got a good fastball--real sneaky," says L.A. catcher
Charles Johnson. "The ball seems to jump on you. Plus, he's got a
real good slider. To me, the Braves pretty much got everything
they need."

The rest of Atlanta's bullpen defies convention. Rocker, a
hyperactive 23-year-old, has emerged as the Braves' top
lefthanded reliever eight months after the expansion teams
ignored him. Last week he hit 98 mph on the radar gun in a game
against San Diego. He dashes to the mound as madly as if he has
a plane to catch. "I may look like an idiot," he says, "but I
think it sets the tone." (Says Glavine, another lefty, "Guys
like him give lefthanders a reputation.")

Seanez, 29, the top righthanded setup man, pitched so poorly in
Triple A last year that he considered quitting--and that was
before Mexicali released him in winter ball "because management
said I didn't throw hard enough." Still, Atlanta signed him,
thus adding another line to his messy resume that includes seven
organizations, six trips to the DL and eight career wins.
Through Sunday he had allowed righthanded batters only seven
hits in 47 at bats (.149) this season.

Dennis Martinez, 43 and the winner of 244 major league games
over 23 seasons, was coaching the Nicaraguan national team in
Spain last August after the Seattle Mariners dumped him.
Rejuvenated by the rest, he's pitched well out of the Braves'
pen and has become Ligtenberg's unofficial counselor. While
Atlanta's five starters earn a combined $29.025 million,
Martinez's base salary of $250,000 is the highest among the six

Butler, 25, a 1995 William & Mary graduate and a proud alumnus
of the Florence Flame of the independent Atlantic Coast League,
was ready to take a job as an actuary in Maryland when he gave
the Flame a whirl. The league folded three weeks after he
signed, but the Braves picked him up. Now Norm Charlton, 35, who
joined Atlanta last week, is trying to stage his own revival at
what's becoming the Lourdes of baseball. If nothing else,
Charlton, a former triple major at Rice (religion, physical
education and political science), further improves the bullpen's
depth of knowledge, what with Ligtenberg within a whisker of his
chemical engineering degree, Butler having majored in math and
economics and Rocker continuing off-season studies toward a poli
sci degree at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. Good luck trying
to find an unsolved crossword puzzle lying around the Atlanta

Then there is Seanez, who signed with the Cleveland Indians out
of high school in 1986 and has yet to spend a full year in the
big leagues. "I don't talk much chemical engineering," Seanez
says, "but I can explain anything you need to know about how the
waivers system works."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN BAHR/ALLSPORT Riding high The lightly regarded Ligtenberg has quietly converted 14 straight save opportunities. [Overhead view of Kerry Ligtenberg pitching]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Awaiting the call Atlanta's emerging bullpen force includes (sitting back, from left) Butler, Ligtenberg and Rocker, whose 3.12 combined ERA is almost as low as their profiles. [Adam Butler, Kerry Ligtenberg, and John Rocker sitting with other Braves players in bullpen]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Instant relief The Braves are hoping newcomer Charlton can befuddle lefties. [Norm Charlton pitching]


How far the Braves go in the postseason may depend on how
effective Kerry Ligtenberg is. The last team to win the World
Series with a closer nearly as inexperienced as Ligtenberg was
the 1981 Dodgers. Steve Howe entered that postseason with 25
career saves. Since then, every world championship team has had
a seasoned relief ace. Below are the career stats of the closers
for each of this decade's Series winners at the start of the


1990 Cincinnati Reds Randy Myers 251 251 87
1991 Minnesota Twins Rick Aguilera 244 174 81
1992 Toronto Blue Jays Tom Henke 487 487 220
1993 Toronto Blue Jays Duane Ward 458 456 121
1994 No World Series
1995 Atlanta Braves Mark Wohlers 211 211 32
1996 New York Yankees John Wetteland 370 353 180
1997 Florida Marlins Robb Nen 278 274 108

Below are the career records, through Sunday, of the closers for
the 1998 division leaders.


Atlanta Braves Kerry Ligtenberg 72 72 21
Houston Astros Billy Wagner 142 142 55
New York Yankees Mariano Rivera 187 177 80
Anaheim Angels Troy Percival 231 231 99
San Diego Padres Trevor Hoffman 359 359 174
Cleveland Indians Mike Jackson 748 741 88

Ligtenberg has been more automatic than the light inside a