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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."
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."
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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