NLCS at a Glance
Arizona won regular-season duel ... but this is different
Updated: Tuesday October 16, 2001 12:46 PM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
So, really, what do you make of the Atlanta Braves? They barely held off the Philadelphia Phillies to win the weakest division in baseball. They can't score any runs, they've got a 65-year-old first baseman, a backup catcher, a rookie second baseman -- and they breezed through their first-round sweep of the Houston Astros.
These, clearly, are not your '90s version of the Braves, who would breeze their way into the playoffs and then choke once they got there. That's not to say these Braves won't, perhaps, pull a swan dive in the National League Championship Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. But you'd be foolish to bank on it.
The Braves manhandled Houston, a team that looked offensively superior and had some good pitching, too. The Astros hit .299 against Atlanta during the season, but managed to hit only .200 in the NLDS against the starting three of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Burkett -- the same three who'll start against the D'backs. Meanwhile, the normally sluggish Braves offense that hit a respectable .280 against Houston upped that to .303 in the three-game win.
Chipper Jones, the All-Star third baseman, led the Braves, as usual, beating the Astros with two homers and a .444 average. But first baseman Julio Franco (who's really only, officially, 40 years old) hit .308 with a homer and three runs scored. Center fielder Andruw Jones had a homer and hit .500. Suddenly, the Braves are hitting.
The Braves always have had the pitching. Maddux, Glavine and Burkett are helped out by a very good bullpen anchored by former starter and Cy Young winner John Smoltz, who saved two of the three games against Houston.
Still, if you want to talk pitching, you need to talk Diamondbacks. Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson are the best 1-2 in baseball, each of them 20-game guys. The Diamondbacks' five-game heart-thumper NLDS win against the St. Louis Cardinals ensured that the Braves won't face Johnson and Schilling back-to-back. But the Braves can't hide. They'll get Johnson on Tuesday and Schilling -- who pitched spectacularly in both his starts in the NLDS -- won't be far behind. Byung-Hyun Kim anchors their fine bullpen.
The Diamondbacks didn't exactly smack the ball against the Cards in the NLDS. But Steve Finley hit .421 and Tony Womack drove in the series-winning run with a bloop single in the bottom of the ninth Sunday night in Phoenix.
The Diamondbacks smeared Atlanta in the regular season, winning five of seven games. The Braves hit only .225 while their famed pitching staff sputtered with a 5.02 ERA. Arizona first baseman Mark Grace hit .435 against Atlanta, while center fielder Finley had two homers and seven RBIs to go with a .393 average.
That all seems to bode well for Arizona in this first-to-four series, but there are warning signs for the Diamondbacks. Johnson lost in his only start against Atlanta this year and continues to struggle in the postseason. He hasn't won since his first year in the playoffs, 1995. Schilling doesn't figure to go again until at least Game 3. After those two starters, it's Miguel Batista and Albie Lopez, who don't inspire a lot of fear.
The Braves, for sure, aren't scaring a lot of people, either. But huge games down the stretch have tempered them, the wipeout of Houston has emboldened them and they still have the pitching to, at the very least, stay with most teams in the playoffs.
There is their past, of course. Atlanta was a mediocre 5-3 in the NLCS in the '90s and didn't even get that far last year, losing to St. Louis in the NLDS. But experience, even bad experience, ought to count for something. The Diamondbacks are in their first NLCS.
Nothing figures to be easy here. The Braves' offense is as suspect as the D'backs' pitching beyond Johnson and Schilling. The Braves' failures in postseasons past -- one World Series win in those five trips -- looms large.
But these, clearly, are not your '90s Braves. So, probably against the odds, we'll say the Braves in seven games.