It has been a breakout season for Wohlers in every way, including his waistline. The 6'4" Wohlers has gained as much as 20 pounds from his listed weight of 207, though not even he is certain of the extent of the increase because he refuses to weigh himself. "I don't need a scale to tell me I'm fat," he says. "I hate it. I hate looking like this. Too many big meals after games at 11 o'clock at night. As soon as the season ends, I'm going to get myself to a gym and lose the weight. But I can't change anything now. The weight has kept me stronger and allowed me to throw harder."
Last Friday night Wohlers overpowered three New York Met hitters with such scorching heat that, at one point, Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone ducked behind manager Bobby Cox for cover, fearing the best the lefthanded-hitting Joe Orsulak could do was line a foul ball into the third base dugout. Afterward Wohlers, who grew up in Holyoke, Mass., actually rushed past the postgame spread to greet family members and boot up his laptop in his hotel room to go on-line for out-of-town scores.
Fairly famished, Wohlers took care of pressing matters the next morning. "I ate a big breakfast," he said. He may very well be the most important member of the Braves this fourth time through October, though in his unsated hunger he hardly stands out on the Atlanta roster. "If we don't win it this year, then you really have to wonder," says Smoltz, "because this is the best team we've had in all the postseasons."
On the other hand, the Braves' task is made more difficult by an added round of playoffs. This time around they will need 11 wins instead of eight to win the world championship. "You fight and scratch all year to have the best record in the league, and then you have a five-game series with the first two games on the road," says Cox. "It's not a good measure of the better team. There's no reward for winning the division."
In league Championship Series play from 1969 through '84, when the five-game format was used, the team with more regular-season victories won 18 limes and lost 13. (One series involved teams with an identical number of victories.) Teams that hosted Games 1 and 2 advanced 15 of the 32 times.
In addition to Wohlers, what the Braves have going for them are two starting pitchers, Glavine and Greg Maddux, who are a combined 100 games over .500 the past five seasons. And Cox planned to use only three starters in the Braves' opening round against the Rockies that began on Tuesday: in order, Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. "How do you not give a guy who has more wins than anybody over the past five years two chances?" asks Cox. That would be Glavine, who actually has one more victory in that time (91-41) than the otherwise incomparable Maddux (90-40). So deep is Atlanta's pitching that Avery, who holds the record for consecutive scoreless innings in league Championship Series play but struggled to a 7-13 record this year, was bumped to the bullpen.
The pitching is good enough to compensate for an offense that had a worse batting average (.250) than every other team in the league except the St. Louis Cardinals. Blauser and outfielders David Justice and Marquis Grissom all hit at least 20 points lower than their career averages, while three Braves born in the 1970s, with one at bat's worth of postseason experience among them, picked up the slack: catcher Javy Lopez (.315), outfielder Ryan Klesko (.310, 23 home runs) and third baseman Chipper Jones (.265, 86 RBIs). "We've got no one with big home runs, big RBIs or big anything," second baseman Mark Lemke says. "We hold the score down with pitching and defense and have the confidence we'll get that last run that we need."
Lemke is one of nine Atlanta players who have lingered throughout this unrequited postseason run. He has been joined by Avery, Blauser, Glavine, Justice, Smoltz, Wohlers, pitcher Kent Mercker and a rabbit's foot of a utility infielder, Rafael Belliard, who, despite a .224 lifetime average, is the only National Leaguer ever to play on five straight teams that reached the postseason. With 754 fewer career home runs, Belliard, whose record postseason streak dates back to the 1990 Pittsburgh Pirates, has played on two more postseason teams than Hank Aaron did. "It's like a routine for me now," says the elfish Belliard with a laugh. "You've got to be in the right spot at the right time."
Says Avery, who at 25 has thrown more postseason innings than Sandy Koufax, "These days it's unusual for nine players to be on a team this long. You don't know how many chances you're going to get. That's what you think about now."
"I still haven't popped the tapes of those other [postseason] games into my machine." Blauser says. "Some day I will, but I can't watch them now. I've got two National League championship rings, and I've worn each of them only one time. Those rings are not the ones I want."