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History repeating

Uninspired Braves could be headed for more playoff woes

Posted: Wednesday October 02, 2002 7:02 PM
  Chipper Jones Chipper Jones went 1-for-3 but came up empty in a key run-scoring opportunity in the fifth. AP

By Albert Chen, Sports Illustrated

ATLANTA -- With its home team rolling into its 11th consecutive postseason on the heels of a National League-best 101-win season, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution posed this pressing question, plastered atop the front page of Wednesday’s morning edition: "Does Atlanta care about the Braves?"

If the Braves continue to look as uninspired as the Tomahawk Chop was for most of Wednesday afternoon, it soon will be a moot point.

In a glistening, sun-rinsed Turner Field, with Atlanta playing its first meaningful game in three months (on June 30, the Braves had an 8 ½-game lead, a bulge that wouldn’t diminish for the rest of the season), the problems facing this year’s Braves team were in plain view.

The morning began with news that Greg Maddux would miss his Game 2 start Thursday because of a blister on his right finger. Then Tom Glavine, who has 12 career postseason victories, took the mound and looked very unspectacular, similar to the pitcher who won just two of his final nine starts in 2002 and lost the decisive Game 5 in last year’s NLCS against the Diamondbacks.

Will Maddux be there to help the Braves rediscover their mojo? Consider that Maddux hasn’t won a postseason game in three years and that his last playoff appearance, Game 4 in last year’s NLCS, was his worst postseason showing in 27 career playoff starts. The Braves’ magnificent two, who may be playing their last act in Atlanta this fall as both become free agents after the season, rarely have looked this ordinary.

What might give this Braves team an edge over the teams of the past is its stellar bullpen, anchored by dominant closer John Smoltz. If the Braves are going to get the ball in the hands of Smoltz, who sat useless Wednesday, they’ll have to get some juice from the bottom of the order.

Take away the trio of Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, who went 3-for-11 with one RBI in Game 1, and you’re left with a black hole in the starting lineup that averaged .251, with eight home runs and 44 RBIs during the season. In Game 1, the Braves got unexpected jolts from Vinny Castilla and Javy Lopez, and whether that continues will go a long way in cooling off the sizzling Giants.

But in the end, the Braves will have to count on what carried them through so many past postseasons: dominant starting pitching. With Glavine sputtering and Maddux ailing, the Braves turn to Kevin Millwood, the 27-year-old right-hander who has shown flashes of brilliance. This is Millwood's time to step out of his mentors' shadows.

With the Giants playing so well, the Braves don't want to think about heading to the Bay Area down 0-2.

"You try to put this one out of your mind," manager Bobby Cox said after the 8-5 Game 1 loss. "It's one game out of whack, and that's the way you look at it whether you win it or not. I'd rather win the first one, that's for sure. But you've got another game tomorrow; you've got to win it."

The city of Atlanta may not care, but its Braves may already be facing a do-or-die situation Thursday night in Game 2.


 
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