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Battle Royal Thanks to three homers from a gritty guy nicknamed the King, the Padres beat the Astros to set up a joust with the National League's reigning dynasty, the Braves

Oct. 12, 1998
Oct. 12, 1998

Table of Contents
Oct. 12, 1998

NHL 98

Battle Royal Thanks to three homers from a gritty guy nicknamed the King, the Padres beat the Astros to set up a joust with the National League's reigning dynasty, the Braves

Jim Leyritz was a New York Yankees reserve during the 1993
season when he grabbed one of teammate Danny Tartabull's heavy
bats and took some ineffective hacks against the Baltimore
Orioles' Rick Sutcliffe. When Leyritz returned to the bench,
Yankees captain Don Mattingly was wielding the needle more
effectively than Leyritz had the borrowed lumber. "Tell you
what," Leyritz told Mattingly, "I'll go up there with my own bat
next time, and if the first pitch is a fastball, I'll hit it out."

This is an article from the Oct. 12, 1998 issue

Two innings later Leyritz grabbed his Excalibur, went deep on
the first pitch and circled the bases. When he returned to the
dugout this time, Mattingly said, "You truly are the King."

Now a gnarled hero of the San Diego Padres, the King is still
leaving the building. After homering three times last week in
the Padres' four-game victory over the Houston Astros in their
National League Division Series, Leyritz has hit six home runs
in 36 career postseason at bats, combining Mark McGwire's
regularity with Reggie Jackson's sense of timing: His
15th-inning blast won Game 2 of the Yankees' Division Series
against the Seattle Mariners in '95; his third-inning homer gave
the Yanks a 1-0 lead in the series-clinching Game 5 win in the
'96 League Championship Series against the Orioles; his
three-run shot against Atlanta Braves closer Mark Wohlers tied
Game 4 of the '96 World Series and altered the course of that
series in New York's favor; his two-out, two-strike, two-run
pinch-hit homer to rightfield on a 98-mph blur from Astros
closer Billy Wagner in Game 2 last Thursday tied the score in
the ninth; his rainbow to left two nights later gave the Padres
a 2-1 win in Game 3; and his homer on Sunday afternoon against
Randy Johnson gave San Diego a 1-0 lead and the idea it would
find a way to beat Johnson for a second time in four games.

Jim's wife, Karri, hates the nickname--"I tell him, 'You're not
the King at home, and you still have to change diapers and take
out the garbage,'" she says--but he wears the crown as easily as
the Stetson that often covers his shaved head. Leyritz takes out
garbage, he takes out the Big Unit.

The Padres, bolstered by the trade last December that brought
them righthander Kevin Brown and the June acquisition of the
quirky Leyritz and his acute sense of theater, clearly aren't
the same thanks-for-coming, drive-home-safely team that vanished
after three games against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1996
Division Series. However, the King and his court now must
measure themselves against true baseball royalty--the Atlanta
Braves--in this week's National League Championship Series.

The Padres don't have the Braves' pitching pedigree--who
does?--but their results are beginning to look eerily similar.
San Diego, which relies on pitching as much as Atlanta does,
limited Houston, the National League's highest-scoring team, to
one run three times in the four games. The back end of the
Padres' staff, with premier closer Trevor Hoffman and underrated
setup man Dan Miceli (who wriggled out of a bases-loaded,
one-out jam in Game 4), is better than Atlanta's. And at the
front end San Diego has Brown, who's not only a No. 1 starter
but seemingly Nos. 2, 3 and 4 as well.

Brown started Games 1 and 3 against Houston, a feat made
possible by a TV day off between the first two games and Brown's
preternatural toughness. One day after vaporizing the Astros in
the opener--Brown struck out 16 and allowed only two singles in
eight scoreless innings--he was winging throws from the hole at
shortstop during infield drills. Last Saturday, Brown had
neither the same feel nor location while working for the third
time in nine days, but he lasted into the seventh in Game 3,
allowing just one run and Leyritz the chance for his daily dose
of noblesse oblige.

If the road to the World Series always goes through Atlanta, as
Padres rightfielder Tony Gwynn says, then at least Brown knows
the off ramps. With the Florida Marlins last year he whipped
Atlanta twice in the National League Championship Series, adding
to his allure. San Diego general manager Kevin Towers, who
needed to put together a team capable of playing almost until
the first Tuesday in November, when the Padres' new stadium
initiative will be on the ballot in San Diego, was in the
market. He considered free agent Darryl Kile but quickly turned
to Brown, a 200-plus-innings, 200-strikeout, Games 1-4-7-type
pitcher who could also take pressure off the other pitchers in
the San Diego rotation, Andy Ashby, Sterling Hitchcock and Joey
Hamilton. Florida was divesting, and the Padres, who gave the
Marlins only three middling minor leaguers, were unconcerned
they might be leasing Brown for only one season.

Brown's $4.8 million salary turned out to be a bargain, although
there were the inevitable ancillary expenses involved, such as
the repairs on the clubhouse bathroom stall in Wrigley Field
that an angry Brown refurbished with some seasoned ash. Brown, a
tightly wound perfectionist, is batting about .750 against
inanimate objects. According to Padres leftfielder Greg Vaughn,
Brown's best fit of pique this season was wreaked at Qualcomm
Stadium on a 300-pound Padres sign that hung between the San
Diego dugout and clubhouse. Towers claims firsthand knowledge
only of a mangled laundry cart. "He used a K-55 model bat that
belonged to Eddie Williams," says Towers, referring to a
little-used first baseman who was with the team for part of the
season. "One of our guys said Brownie had more good hacks off
the field with Eddie's bat than Eddie ever had with it on the
field."

Brown's intensity is matched only by that of his pitching coach,
Dave Stewart, who in spring training helped Brown develop a
split-fingered fastball that had been in the embryonic stage.
Brown, who won 18 games during the 1998 regular season, is a
more complete pitcher than the one who stymied Atlanta a year
ago. He now has four pitches--a slider, the splitter, his
signature two-seam sinker and a high-riding, four-seam fastball
thrown in the upper 90s that in Game 1 shocked a Houston team
accustomed to seeing Brown probe the shoe tops--and he throws
them from a twirling, half-Luis Tiant windup and from a dizzying
number of arm angles. "If you're asking if those are four
strikeout pitches, then, yeah, I'd say he has four Number 1
pitches," Stewart says. "That's not just nasty. That makes you a
freak."

The only thing Brown doesn't have is his proper rest, unlike the
Atlanta troika of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, who
took advantage of the Braves' bye week--known elsewhere in
baseball as the Division Series. Atlanta disposed of the
endearing, mistake-prone Chicago Cubs in three straight, closing
them out 6-2 behind Maddux last Saturday in Chicago. The Braves
have now won 12 of 13 Division Series games since this
by-product of the wild card began. For a team with seven
consecutive division titles and absolutely no problems with
self-esteem, the Division Series serves roughly the same purpose
as scheduling Rutgers early in your football season. Get some
work. Get a win. Indeed Atlantans treat the Division Series less
like a playoff than homecoming weekend. The Cubs' Sammy Sosa
received standing ovations in recognition of his 66 home runs
before his first at bat in each game in Atlanta, and Glavine's
five innings of spotless work in Game 2 didn't even draw a
ripple of applause after Mickey Morandini broke up the possible
no-hitter.

There's a way to capture the Braves'--if not Atlanta's--attention,
according to Astros leftfielder Moises Alou: Play them tough in
the regular season. (The drained Cubs won six of nine from
Atlanta, but their sheer Cubness is too ingrained to strike fear
in postseason rivals.) "I remember when I was in Montreal, we
always played Atlanta tough," Alou says. "Near the end of the
1992 season a few of their guys told me they'd rather play
Pittsburgh in the playoffs than us because of the way we played
them. When I was with Florida last year, it was the same thing.
You not only have to play the Braves tough to help your own
confidence, but they don't like to go into the playoffs against
those teams. I'm sure San Diego [which was 4-5 in 1998 against
Atlanta] has their respect."

If you had looked at the Padres heading into the playoffs, you
would have had to wonder why. San Diego hadn't scored more than
four runs in any of its last 13 regular-season games, and
continued that streak against the Astros until it exploded for a
6-1 win in Game 4 on Sunday. Still, the Padres entered this
week's series against the Braves with a streak of 22 straight
games with fewer than 10 hits. Their only consistent threat of
late, aside from the more celebrated Vaughn and his 50 home
runs, has been Leyritz, a sometimes catcher and first baseman
whose best position is batter's box, despite a righthanded
posture that's hardly regal. His hands flutter on the bat as he
settles in his stance, his right knee bent, his left leg stiff
until he raises it almost a foot to stride into the pitch.
Leyritz, new to the National League, was showing off his stroke
in batting practice a day after joining San Diego in late
June--he wanted to be traded after Boston relegated him to
third-string catcher and platoon DH--much to the bemusement of
Gwynn, who has 2,928 career hits and is professorial about his
craft. "Merv, look at him," Gwynn said to Padres hitting
instructor Merv Rettenmund. "What's he trying to do?"

"I don't know," Rettenmund replied.

Of course the now Wohlersless Braves, who have popped more corks
in early October than most sommeliers, probably can see Leyritz
ruining 1996 in their sleep. The King rules: His postseason
homer/at bat ratio matches the Braves' ratio of one World Series
victory for their six previous postseason trips in this decade.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN COVER [Regional] Baseball's Final Four EXCLUSIVE Major league scouts analyze each team position by position Will John Smoltz and the Braves hold off the Padres? [John Smoltz]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO COVER [Regional] Baseball's Final Four EXCLUSIVE Major league scouts analyze each team position by position Can Greg Vaughn and the Padres upset the Braves? [Greg Vaughn]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO A real reach Runs were so scarce for Houston that Alou's failed attempt to go from first to third in Game 3 was a critical mistake. [Ken Caminiti tagging out Moises Alou's slide headfirst]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Crowning moment Leyritz set the tone in the clincher when he took Johnson deep for his third home run of the series. [Jim Leyritz batting]

Padres

LINEUP

Quilvio Veras 2B
Good fastball hitter who likes to go the other way. Weakness is
breaking pitches.

Steve Finley CF
Had off-year with the bat. Dead fastball hitter who likes the
pitch on the inside half of the plate. Gives up on balls down
and away. Superior centerfielder.

Tony Gwynn RF
Hits the ball where it's pitched and doesn't try to do too much
with it. Weakness is fastballs up and in.

Greg Vaughn LF
Changed stance and became productive again this year. Good
fastball hitter who is a more disciplined batter. Show him the
ball inside, and get him out down and away.

Ken Caminiti 3B
Capable of unloading a home run at any time. Good low-ball
hitter. Late in the season did a better job taking the pitch
away and driving it to the opposite field.

Wally Joyner 1B
Good contact hitter who likes to go the other way. Home run
power is down. Weakness is up and in.

Carlos Hernandez C
Dead fastball hitter. Weak on breaking pitches. On defense, has
a good arm and quick release.

Chris Gomez SS
Likes ball over the middle of the plate. Can bust him inside,
and he'll chase the breaking pitch.

Bench

1B-C Jim Leyritz prefers the ball out over the plate where he
can hit it with power to right-center. Can work him inside. Will
chase breaking pitches. OF Mark Sweeney has home run power off
the bench and a good eye. Ditto for OF John Vander Wal, a
first-ball, fastball hitter. C Greg Myers is a good backup and
lefthanded bat off the bench. Has home run power. 3B George
Arias is an average defensive player with an erratic arm. INF
Andy Sheets and OF Ruben Rivera have trouble with hard stuff and
don't figure to be factors.

Rotation

Kevin Brown, RHP Four quality pitches: sinking and running
fastballs in the 91 to 96 mph range, a split-finger and a very
sharp slider. Let him get ahead of you, and you're dead. You
pretty much have to sit on a fastball--you'll usually get it.

Andy Ashby, RHP Curveball with sharp top-to-bottom break is his
out pitch. Appeared fatigued down stretch and, perhaps because of
tiredness, didn't throw his split-fingered fastball much late in
the season.

Joey Hamilton, RHP Fastball sinks and runs, but curve isn't real
sharp. Slider is his out pitch. Velocity on fastball is good (91
to 93) but down from 93 to 96 in past years.

Sterling Hitchcock, LHP Splitter with good downward action,
which he used more often in second half, is his out pitch. Makes
all his other pitches (fastball, curve, slider) more effective.

Bullpen

RH Trevor Hoffman has fastball that's pretty straight, but he
also has a slider, a big overhand curve and a changeup that's
his out pitch. Having all those pitches is huge plus for a
closer. Throws any pitch at any time. LH Randy Myers throws more
sliders than he used to, especially to righthanded batters,
because fastball is pretty straight and only around 87 to 88
mph. Doesn't have closer's stuff anymore, but he can be
effective against lefthanders. RH Dan Miceli has good movement
on two- and four-seam fastballs and relies on curve and splitter
as out pitches. Doesn't quite have the stuff to be a closer. RH
Donne Wall has straight fastball and sinking fastball plus slow
curve, but best pitch is changeup with good downward action. RH
Brian Boehringer can be inconsistent; sharp slider is out pitch.
LH Mark Langston has the big curve, still out pitch. Needs to
spot circle changeup. Fastball isn't so fast and doesn't have
much movement. Time's running out on his career.

Bottom Line

San Diego lineup has several guys who can be pitched to, but
there's still a lot of power there. Padres don't have
exceptional team speed. With Brown at top of a strong rotation,
San Diego has a chance to beat Braves if its pitching can hang
in with Atlanta's.

Braves

LINEUP

Walt Weiss SS
Contact hitter. Weak on breaking balls. Will chase pitches out
of strike zone. Pound him inside with hard stuff.

Keith Lockhart 2B
Bust him with pitches up and in. Makes up for shortcomings with
hustle.

Chipper Jones 3B
Impact player. Make a mistake, and he'll hit it out. One
weakness: chases high fastballs.

Andres Galarraga 1B
Eats up fastballs over the middle. Weakness: fastballs inside.
That's why he was hit by pitches 25 times this season. Will
chase sliders out of strike zone.

Ryan Klesko LF
Good power. Getting better at hitting breaking balls and
changeups. Bust him inside and work the ball away to make him
chase.

Javy Lopez C
Dead fastball hitter who likes the ball from the middle in. He's
learning to go the other way late in the count. Weak on breaking
stuff.

Andruw Jones CF
Aggressive hitter. Poor on breaking balls but can turn on any
fastball.

Michael Tucker RF
Has home run power. More of a platoon player than an every-day
guy.

Bench

Main threat is OF Gerald Williams, who's above average in left,
center and right and possesses good, compact swing. OF Danny
Bautista has some power and could become a frontline player in
left. 1B Greg Colbrunn is dead fastball hitter with power who
likes the ball low; aggressive but shows no discipline. C Eddie
Perez is above average defender who throws well; at bat is good
fastball hitter but weak on breaking balls. SS Ozzie Guillen
doesn't have range he once had but is valuable insurance. INFs
Tony Graffanino and Marty Malloy are adequate.

Rotation

John Smoltz, RHP Good movement on fastball. Superb slider with
sharp downward action. Uses split-finger as changeup. Good
control with all pitches and works in and out with them.

Tom Glavine, LHP Fastball sinks and runs with above average
movement. Changeup runs away from righties and bottom falls out
of it. Sharp downward action on slider. Good curve. Needs to have
good control to be effective--and usually does.

Greg Maddux, RHP Two- and four-seam fastballs with a lot of
movement. Bottom falls out of changeup--it's his best pitch.
Good sharp, downward action to slider. Average curve. Umpires
give him strikes about six inches off the outside corner, making
it difficult for hitters to be patient. Best try to wait for a
specific pitch and be aggressive when it comes.

Denny Neagle, LHP Varies velocity on two- and four-seam fastballs
to keep hitters off balance. Also changes speeds well on curve
and slider, which is more like a cut fastball. Circle changeup is
his out pitch. Control outstanding.

Bullpen

RH closer Kerry Ligtenberg has good late life on four-seam
fastball he throws at the knees. Also has good snap on slider.
Had some trouble late in the year with control. Reaction to
postseason pressure a question. RH Kevin Millwood resembles
Smoltz in good power slider and fastball. Has to make transition
from rotation to bullpen for playoffs. RH Dennis Martinez throws
fastball in and out. Has a top-to-bottom break on curveball and
likes to backdoor lefthanded batters with curve. Needs pinpoint
control to be effective. LH John Rocker's fastball is
consistently in high 90s and explodes at the plate, sinking in
the zone. Good slider but below average curve is cross between
slider and curve that he throws too hard. All arms and legs on
delivery, makes it tough to see ball. RH Rudy Seanez has good
velocity on fastball, but often it's pretty straight. LH Odalis
Perez not likely to get much work despite good, lively arm.

Bottom Line

Starting pitching is strongest in majors. Relievers are young
and inexperienced, though they have done a good job. Good
offensive club that gets men on base, has a lot of power and
plays well together. The Padres can compete with them, but the
Braves have the edge because of their postseason experience.