We have seen baseball's best pitching staff in its finest hour—so far. In winning the National League pennant last week, the Atlanta Braves' pitchers reduced the Cincinnati Reds' potent lineup to a procession of confused hitters who whiffed regularly, lofted lazy fly balls and topped weak grounders. As a result Cincy's vaunted running game never got up to speed, slugger Ron Gant turned into Ron Can't and cleanup hitter Reggie Sanders brought new meaning to the term strikeout king. "I'm numb," the Reds' magnificent shortstop, Barry Larkin, said last Saturday night after his team had been swept out of the National League Championship Series in four games. "I'm dumbfounded."
What's worse—for either the Seattle Mariners or the Cleveland Indians, who held a 3-2 lead in the American League Championship Series through Sunday night (page 42)—is that the Brave staff's best may be yet to come. With a week to reload for the World Series, which starts this Saturday in Atlanta, the Braves have had time to rest and set their rotation.
The Atlanta starters—Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Steve Avery, who worked in that order during the Championship Series—combined for a 1.29 ERA in 28 innings against Cincinnati. However, for the World Series, perennial Cy Young winner Maddux, who pitched the Division Series clincher against the Colorado Rockies on Oct. 7, will regain his customary Game 1 assignment. If necessary, he could get three starts in the Fall Classic, which could make the difference for an Atlanta team that is trying to win its first world championship in three tries in this decade.
"We know we have to win the World Series," said a champagne-soaked Smoltz after last Saturday's 6-0, pennant-clinching victory. "This isn't a relief. If we lose in the World Series, then we might as well have lost this series. It won't be good enough."
Remember that when they lost the 1991 World Series to the Minnesota Twins in seven games and the '92 Series to the Toronto Blue Jays in six, the Braves did not have Maddux, who was still toiling for the Chicago Cubs. ( Charlie Leibrandt was Atlanta's Game 1 starter against the Twins.) And when the Braves suffered six of their eight World Series losses in their opponents' last at bat, they also didn't have a stopper like Mark Wohlers. He made an appearance in each game against the Reds, giving up just two hits and striking out eight in five innings. In fact, the Atlanta bullpen combined to allow only one run in 11 innings against Cincinnati. "You can't pitch better than we did," said Brave pitching coach Leo Mazzone, whose staff held Gant without an extra-base hit and struck out Sanders 10 times in 16 at bats (box, page 41). "Not just the starters, but one through 11."
Had he been referring to the team as a whole, Mazzone could just as easily have tipped his cap to Atlanta players one through 25. So widespread were the contributions to the sweep of the Reds that the series' Most Valuable Player was Mike Devereaux, a spare outfielder who went 4 for 13. The player who stroked the blow that doomed the Reds was Charlie O'Brien, a career backup catcher who writes the names of his kids on his bats. And the leading hitters in the series were Atlanta's third and fourth batters, third baseman Chipper Jones and first baseman Fred McGriff, respectively, who each went 7 for 16 (.438).
Attention, American League champion: The last time the Braves went to the World Series, they didn't have the kind of punch coming off the bench that players like Devereaux and O'Brien provide, a big-game rookie like Jones or an anchor in the middle of the lineup like McGriff, who figured in nearly every Atlanta rally. "This is the best Braves team I've seen," said departing Red manager Davey Johnson after the sweep. " Atlanta's one Achilles heel in the past has been its bullpen, but the relief pitching took the wind out of our sails."
Heading into the Championship Series, Larkin had pronounced the two teams so evenly matched that he predicted a role player would likely decide the outcome. He was half right. Playing in his first postseason, the 32-year-old Devereaux delivered the game-winning hit in Game 1, a two-out single in the 11th inning that gave the Braves a 2-1 victory. Before that, Devereaux had been best known for setting state sprint records and high-jumping 6'10" as a Casper, Wyo., schoolboy and for driving in 107 runs as a Baltimore Oriole in 1992. He didn't join the Braves until Aug. 25, when he was acquired from the Chicago White Sox in a trade for a minor leaguer.
"In my first at bat against Colorado [in the Division Series], I said to myself, This is the biggest at bat of my life," Devereaux said after Game 1. "My second at bat of that series, I said, This is the biggest at bat.... Tonight, I said, This is the biggest. This was definitely the biggest hit of my life."
Still, he nearly topped it four nights later when he started Game 4 in place of right-fielder David Justice, who had a sore knee. With Atlanta ahead 2-0 and two runners on in the seventh, Devereaux crushed a fastball into the seats for a 5-0 lead. "It's like a dream, like something you see on TV," Devereaux said after picking up his MVP trophy.