Thanks to three homers from a gritty guy nicknamed the King, the Padres beat the Astros to set up a joust with the National League's reigning dynasty, the Braves
By Michael Farber
Posted: Wed October 7, 1998
Jim Leyritz was a New York Yankees reserve during the 1993 season when he grabbed one of teammate Danny Tartabull's heavy bats and took some ineffective hacks against the Baltimore Orioles' Rick Sutcliffe. When Leyritz returned to the bench, Yankees captain Don Mattingly was wielding the needle more effectively than Leyritz had the borrowed lumber. "Tell you what," Leyritz told Mattingly, "I'll go up there with my own bat next time, and if the first pitch is a fastball, I'll hit it out."
Two innings later Leyritz grabbed his Excalibur, went deep on the first pitch and circled the bases. When he returned to the dugout this time, Mattingly said, "You truly are the King."
Jim's wife, Karri, hates the nickname"I tell him, 'You're not the King at home, and you still have to change diapers and take out the garbage,'" she saysbut he wears the crown as easily as the Stetson that often covers his shaved head. Leyritz takes out garbage, he takes out the Big Unit.
The Padres, bolstered by the trade last December that brought them righthander Kevin Brown and the June acquisition of the quirky Leyritz and his acute sense of theater, clearly aren't the same thanks-for-coming, drive-home-safely team that vanished after three games against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1996 Division Series. However, the King and his court now must measure themselves against true baseball royaltythe Atlanta Bravesin this week's National League Championship Series.
The Padres don't have the Braves' pitching pedigreewho does?but their results are beginning to look eerily similar. San Diego, which relies on pitching as much as Atlanta does, limited Houston, the National League's highest-scoring team, to one run three times in the four games. The back end of the Padres' staff, with premier closer Trevor Hoffman and underrated setup man Dan Miceli (who wriggled out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in Game 4), is better than Atlanta's. And at the front end San Diego has Brown, who's not only a No. 1 starter but seemingly Nos. 2, 3 and 4 as well.
Brown started Games 1 and 3 against Houston, a feat made possible by a TV day off between the first two games and Brown's preternatural toughness. One day after vaporizing the Astros in the openerBrown struck out 16 and allowed only two singles in eight scoreless inningshe was winging throws from the hole at shortstop during infield drills. Last Saturday, Brown had neither the same feel nor location while working for the third time in nine days, but he lasted into the seventh in Game 3, allowing just one run and Leyritz the chance for his daily dose of noblesse oblige.
If the road to the World Series always goes through Atlanta, as Padres rightfielder Tony Gwynn says, then at least Brown knows the off ramps. With the Florida Marlins last year he whipped Atlanta twice in the National League Championship Series, adding to his allure. San Diego general manager Kevin Towers, who needed to put together a team capable of playing almost until the first Tuesday in November, when the Padres' new stadium initiative will be on the ballot in San Diego, was in the market. He considered free agent Darryl Kile but quickly turned to Brown, a 200-plus-innings, 200-strikeout, Games 1-4-7-type pitcher who could also take pressure off the other pitchers in the San Diego rotation, Andy Ashby, Sterling Hitchcock and Joey Hamilton. Florida was divesting, and the Padres, who gave the Marlins only three middling minor leaguers, were unconcerned they might be leasing Brown for only one season.
Brown's intensity is matched only by that of his pitching coach, Dave Stewart, who in spring training helped Brown develop a split-fingered fastball that had been in the embryonic stage. Brown, who won 18 games during the 1998 regular season, is a more complete pitcher than the one who stymied Atlanta a year ago. He now has four pitchesa slider, the splitter, his signature two-seam sinker and a high-riding, four-seam fastball thrown in the upper 90s that in Game 1 shocked a Houston team accustomed to seeing Brown probe the shoe topsand he throws them from a twirling, half-Luis Tiant windup and from a dizzying number of arm angles. "If you're asking if those are four strikeout pitches, then, yeah, I'd say he has four Number 1 pitches," Stewart says. "That's not just nasty. That makes you a freak."
The only thing Brown doesn't have is his proper rest, unlike the Atlanta troika of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, who took advantage of the Braves' bye weekknown elsewhere in baseball as the Division Series. Atlanta disposed of the endearing, mistake-prone Chicago Cubs in three straight, closing them out 6-2 behind Maddux last Saturday in Chicago. The Braves have now won 12 of 13 Division Series games since this by-product of the wild card began. For a team with seven consecutive division titles and absolutely no problems with self-esteem, the Division Series serves roughly the same purpose as scheduling Rutgers early in your football season. Get some work. Get a win. Indeed Atlantans treat the Division Series less like a playoff than homecoming weekend. The Cubs' Sammy Sosa received standing ovations in recognition of his 66 home runs before his first at bat in each game in Atlanta, and Glavine's five innings of spotless work in Game 2 didn't even draw a ripple of applause after Mickey Morandini broke up the possible no-hitter.
There's a way to capture the Braves'if not Atlanta'sattention, according to Astros leftfielder Moises Alou: Play them tough in the regular season. (The drained Cubs won six of nine from Atlanta, but their sheer Cubness is too ingrained to strike fear in postseason rivals.) "I remember when I was in Montreal, we always played Atlanta tough," Alou says. "Near the end of the 1992 season a few of their guys told me they'd rather play Pittsburgh in the playoffs than us because of the way we played them. When I was with Florida last year, it was the same thing. You not only have to play the Braves tough to help your own confidence, but they don't like to go into the playoffs against those teams. I'm sure San Diego [which was 4-5 in 1998 against Atlanta] has their respect."
If you had looked at the Padres heading into the playoffs, you would have had to wonder why. San Diego hadn't scored more than four runs in any of its last 13 regular-season games, and continued that streak against the Astros until it exploded for a 6-1 win in Game 4 on Sunday. Still, the Padres entered this week's series against the Braves with a streak of 22 straight games with fewer than 10 hits. Their only consistent threat of late, aside from the more celebrated Vaughn and his 50 home runs, has been Leyritz, a sometimes catcher and first baseman whose best position is batter's box, despite a righthanded posture that's hardly regal. His hands flutter on the bat as he settles in his stance, his right knee bent, his left leg stiff until he raises it almost a foot to stride into the pitch. Leyritz, new to the National League, was showing off his stroke in batting practice a day after joining San Diego in late Junehe wanted to be traded after Boston relegated him to third-string catcher and platoon DHmuch to the bemusement of Gwynn, who has 2,928 career hits and is professorial about his craft. "Merv, look at him," Gwynn said to Padres hitting instructor Merv Rettenmund. "What's he trying to do?"
"I don't know," Rettenmund replied.
Of course the now Wohlersless Braves, who have popped more corks in early October than most sommeliers, probably can see Leyritz ruining 1996 in their sleep. The King rules: His postseason homer/at bat ratio matches the Braves' ratio of one World Series victory for their six previous postseason trips in this decade.
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