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Sports Illustrated's 1999 Baseball Preview
 
  Feisty and full of punch, Boone figures to shore up the Braves at second base and contribute a needed rah-rah spirit to the Atlanta clubhouse. Chuck Solomon

Atlanta Braves

The laid-back Braves hope a harder-hitting approach will lead to Series success

By Mark Bechtel

Ryan Klesko would like you to know that reports of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. This season he'll have the chance to prove it. Three years ago the Braves leftfielder hit 34 homers and drove in 93 runs, but in 1998 he slipped to 18 and 70, respectively. Things got so bad that for four weeks late last season he didn't drive in a run. His declining production, coupled with the Braves' recent signing of free-agent outfielder Brian Jordan, caused the trade rumors involving Klesko that pop up every winter to take on unprecedented vigor.

Then fate intervened. First baseman Andres Galarraga was diagnosed with cancer in February, ending his season before it began. The 27-year-old Klesko, who had played first throughout his minor league career, would replace the Big Cat. He went from the brink of being squeezed out of his job to becoming the starter at one of the most important positions on the diamond. "It's tough because Cat's such a good guy, and he had such a good year," says Klesko.

That good year -- 44 homers and 121 RBIs -- will be difficult for Klesko to replicate, but he feels that if he can avoid the injuries that have nagged him over the past two seasons, he should be able to produce. "It's a given, if I can stay healthy," he says. "The last year I was healthy, I hit 34 home runs. I just played through it last year."

 
Manager
Bobby Cox
(10th season with Atlanta)
1998 Record
106-56 (first in NL East)
Prediction
First in NL East
Batting Order
LFOtis Nixon
2BBret Boone
3B Chipper Jones
RFBrian Jordan
1B Ryan Klesko
C Javy Lopez
CF Andruw Jones
SS Walt Weiss
Starters
RH Greg Maddux
LH Tom Glavine
RH John Smoltz
RH Kevin Millwood
LF Bruce Chen
Bullpen
LH John Rocker
RH Kerry Ligtenberg
RH Rudy Seanez
RH Mark Wohlers
RH Mike Cathere
LH Mike Remlinger
Next Up...

If you want to fit into the Braves' rotation, you must have the arm and the intelligence. Lefty Bruce Chen has both. Chen, a 21-year-old Panamanian who boasts a fastball that tops out at 92 mph and a precocious ability to work the corners with his curve and changeup, bedeviled hitters at three levels last year, winning 17 games, including two in four starts in the majors. He's also a dean's-list student who's six semesters shy of a civil engineering degree from Georgia Tech. "He's a quick learner," says fellow Atlanta pitcher Kevin Millwood. "He's got great stuff, and anytime you put great stuff with a great head, you've got a chance to have a great pitcher."

"It" was an early-season injury to his right wrist, followed by an appendectomy at the end of June. "I came back from my surgery in 12 days when I could have easily stayed out a month," he says. "I wanted to get my swing right and start seeing pitches and get ready for the playoffs. A guy hitting .220 can go into the playoffs and be the MVP."

The Braves know that well. Year in and year out they put up impressive numbers in the regular season. They enter the postseason as prohibitive favorites to win the pennant, if not the World Series, and then they run into someone with lesser credentials on a hot streak. Last fall that someone was Padres lefthander Sterling Hitchcock. He befuddled Atlanta twice in the League Championship Series, the second time being in the decisive Game 6. To one man in attendance at that game, the Braves' inability to touch Hitchcock underscored their most pressing problem. That man was former Rockies manager Don Baylor, who since has been hired by manager Bobby Cox to be Atlanta's new hitting coach. To Baylor, the Braves' offense, the league's fourth-highest scoring, looked unprepared.

"Hitchcock would throw a fastball, and the Atlanta hitter would take it," says Baylor. "Then he'd throw a sinker in the dirt, and guys would swing. Then they'd take another fastball. You've got to have some kind of approach. If the guy's throwing first-pitch strikes, at some point you've got to say, We're not going to take them."

Baylor is preaching flexibility to his new charges. He wants the Braves to make adjustments, to approach each game differently depending on who's on the hill. Atlanta struck out 1,062 times last year, and Baylor wants the Braves to pare that number. "If you put the ball in play more, you're going to score more runs," he says.

That's important to Baylor because for all their slugging -- Atlanta hit 215 homers, the league's second-highest total -- the Braves don't do a very good job creating runs. Like Earl Weaver's Orioles of yore, they live on stellar pitching and a steady diet of three-run homers. They've certainly got the sluggers for that. Third baseman Chipper Jones and catcher Javy Lopez each hit 34 dingers; 21-year-old centerfielder Andruw Jones stroked 31; Jordan, who played last year with the Cardinals, clubbed 25; and new second baseman Bret Boone slammed 24 for the Reds. Boone also batted .266 and drove in 95 runs, which should mean a big upgrade at the position over last year's platoon of Tony Graffanino and Keith Lockhart, who together hit .237 with 14 homers and 59 RBIs.

Relying on the long ball works fine when you're facing average arms, but ... "in the postseason you run into guys who are pitching well, and you're not going to get that three-run homer," says Baylor. "When you get in a World Series situation, you're going to face good pitching every day. You're going to have to grind."

At least the Braves know the same can be said of their opponents. Last year Atlanta became the first team since the 1923 Yankees to have five 16-game winners -- Tom Glavine (the Cy Young Award winner), Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood, Denny Neagle (who was traded to the Reds in the off-season) and John Smoltz. The bullpen, though, is less settled. In spring training it took a hit when closer Kerry Ligtenberg partially tore a ligament in his right elbow. He'll miss at least a month and possibly the season. Taking his place will be hard-throwing lefty John Rocker or righty Mark Wohlers, the former closer who mysteriously couldn't find the plate for the last four months of 1998. Wohlers, however, has had a decent spring. "I'm not saying I'm back," he says, "but I'm pretty darn close."


  • Braves
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    The Braves are also solid defensively, meaning they can be patient with Klesko as he reacquaints himself with a position at which he is best known for having dropped a soft line drive in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series. Boone is especially good with the leather. He and former Falcons defensive back Jordan also bring a little life to Atlanta. "They have a desire about them, they bring a football mentality with them," says Baylor. "It becomes infectious after a while." The Braves hope the infection lingers into the last week of October.

    Issue date: March 29, 1999



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