2001 MLB Postseason - National League Championship Series

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Stephen Cannella's Breakdown
Braves   Diamondbacks
Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan killed Arizona pitching this year -- not that any team needs an excuse to pitch around that duo. There's little else in the Braves' lineup to frighten opposing pitchers, though Julio Franco can still handle the bat and Andruw Jones (.500) did get hot against the Astros. But overall the Braves have to scratch out base hits and hope one of their big guns drives the runners home.   OFFENSE

The Edge:

It wasn't slugging that got the D'Backs this far. They struggled big-time in the Division Series, going just 7 for 35 with runners in scoring position; Bob Brenly used four different players in the cleanup spot to try to get things going. If Luis Gonzalez and Matt Williams stay cold, there's not much power here, and the NL's oldest lineup doesn't have enough speed to manufacture runs. Bright spots: Steve Finley, who finally got hot in the second half and was Arizona's leading hitter against the Cardinals, and Craig Counsell, an excellent pressure hitter.  

If the ball is hit up the middle, the Braves have no problems. Andruw Jones is as good as it gets in center. Rey Sanchez is the best defensive shortstop in the league. But Chipper Jones is shaky at times at third while first baseman Franco is in the lineup for his bat, not his glove. Keep an eye on the pitchers, especially Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine: Their ability to field their position helps eliminate bunts and squib hits.   DEFENSE

The Edge:

A strength. Finley (center field) and Mark Grace (first base) are elite defenders, and Matt Williams made up for his offensive slump with excellent defense in the NLDS. This team made the fewest errors in the majors this year. In the field, at least, the D'Backs don't beat themselves.  

The rotation isn't quite the imposing beast it once was, but it's still strong. Obviously, no one wants to face Maddux or Glavine (especially Glavine) in a big game. Arizona did hammer Maddux for 13 runs in two starts this season. Jason Marquis is an above-average starter, and the ageless John Burkett can twist an aggressive team like Arizona into knots with his soft-serve repertoire.   STARTING PITCHING

The Edge:

Depends what day it is. The rotation is a two-headed monster: If Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson is starting, Arizona can be unbeatable. Game 2 starter Miguel Batista is the sleeper of the staff -- don't be surprised if he dazzles the Braves. Fourth starter Albie Lopez can't be relied on in a big game, but he did pitch well against Atlanta this season: 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA in two starts. 

For once, the pen isn't a black hole for the Braves. In John Smoltz they have the door-slamming closer they have lacked for a decade; he was nearly perfect against the Astros in the Division Series. Steve Karsay has closer's stuff in a setup role. Steve Reed is also a solid setup guy and Mike Remlinger is a very dependable left-hander who's actually more effective against righties than lefties.   BULLPEN

The Edge:

If the NLCS turns into a battle of bullpens, the D'Backs are done. Closer Byung-Hyun Kim's nasty rising slider is sometimes unhittable, but he has also fired it to the backstop. Lefty specialist Greg Swindell is far from overpowering; same goes for 42-year-old Mike Morgan. Left-hander Brian Anderson pitched well in long relief against the Cardinals. He'll be key if and when a starter not named Schilling or Johnson falters early.  

Not much here. Keith Lockhart is a solid defensive fill-in and hit .326 as a pinch-hitter this season, but he's not an extra-base threat. Backup catcher Paul Bako may be forced to start again if Javy Lopez (sprained ankle) still isn't ready to play.   BENCH

The Edge:

Brenly's ace in the hole. David Dellucci and Erubiel Durazo are the two best left-handed pinch hitters in the league. Both Danny Bautista and Midre Cummings provide speed and handle the bat well. And Brenly had enough faith in Greg Colbrunn to start him in the cleanup spot in Game 4 against St. Louis. Their deep bench allows the D'Backs to match up against any bullpen.  

Atlanta lost three-quarters of its infield, its leadoff hitter and its starting catcher to injuries, and Bobby Cox still coaxed a division title out of the team. He did the best managing job of his career this year. Other than Joe Torre, there's no one I'd rather have managing my team in October. MANAGER

The Edge:

This veteran team has thrived under Brenly, who runs a loose and low-pressure ship. He can be slow to go to his bullpen, especially when Johnson or Schilling is on the mound, and isn't afraid to make unconventional decisions (anyone see that squeeze play coming in Game 5?). But he has Arizona playing with confidence.  

Their attitude. For once the Braves entered the postseason as underdogs, and against Houston they looked as relaxed as they have in any of the last 10 Octobers. Not being saddled with high expectations might be just what Atlanta needs to get back to the World Series.   'X' FACTOR

The Edge:


Matt Williams. He was hitless in the NLDS and booed mercilessly at Bank One Ballpark until the ninth inning of Game 5, when he kick-started the series-winning rally with a double. If Williams doesn't get hot, Arizona's offense will remain punchless.  
Cannella's Prediction: Braves in 7
Sports Illustrated baseball writer Stephen Cannella will contribute regularly to CNNSI.com throughout the playoffs.

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