Atlanta braves manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone set the order of their playoff rotation long before they knew who their opponent would be. No one on the coaching staff bothered running computer reports about which potential foes hit lefthanders better or how the Atlanta pitchers had fared against those teams. Cox and Mazzone, in fact, may have put more thought into their breakfast choice than their rotation the day they lined up righthanders John Smoltz and Greg Maddux followed by lefthander Tom Glavine to pitch the first three games of their National League Division Series, which was scheduled to begin on Wednesday.
"It was pretty simple, really," Mazzone says. "Smoltz earned the opener for the way he's pitched all year, Maddux is Maddux, and who else would you rather have pitching a big game than Tom Glavine, and he's going third. They're a great pitching staff, so what the hell?"
It so happened that the Los Angeles Dodgers, the National League wild card, drew the short straw—and defending world champion Atlanta. Doesn't matter. Any postseason opponent of the Braves must deal with the same huge task: Find a way to overcome three starters who have combined for a .594 career winning percentage (418-286), including .651 this year (54-29); six straight Cy Young Awards (counting the one Smoltz is almost certain to receive after this season); two postseason MVP awards (Smoltz, 1992 Championship Series; Glavine, '95 World Series); and the experience of 229'/3 playoff innings over 35 pressure-packed October starts. That's why Atlanta is the team to beat again this year.
"If we get beat," Glavine says, "it will probably be because we got outpitched. Sure, you'd like to win 10-0, but you don't expect that this time of year. If the old saying is still true—that pitching and defense win championships—I like our chances as well as anybody's."
The vulnerability of supposed great teams is often exposed in postseason matchups. The Oakland A's of the Bash Brothers days, for instance, could be shut down with good righthanded power pitching, as the Dodgers did in 1988 and the Cincinnati Reds did two years later. The free-swinging 1995 Cleveland Indians could be contained with good off-speed pitching, particularly from lefthanders, which is what the Braves threw at them last year.
Even Atlanta has its soft spots. Most of the moves made by general manager John Schuerholz this season haven't panned out. Lefthander Denny Neagle and third baseman Terry Pendleton, obtained in August trades, have bombed, and rookie outfielder Andruw Jones, the minor league player of the year who was promoted the same month, has fizzled. The left side of the infield is unsettled.
In the postseason the Braves could also be in trouble if the starters don't pitch long enough to turn the game over directly to closer Mark Wohlers (2-4, 3.03 ERA, 39 saves). The middle-relief corps—Brad Clontz (6-3, 5.69 ERA), Greg McMichael (5-3, 3.22 ERA) and Terrell Wade (5-0, 2.97 ERA)—can be middling. And the bullpen has no lefthander experienced in getting tough late-inning outs.
What's more, the Dodgers present Atlanta with its biggest challenge. If L.A.'s starting rotation (righthanders Ramon Martinez, Ismael Valdes and Hideo Nomo), the best outside of Atlanta's, can keep the games close, the Dodgers, who have the stronger bullpen, will have the edge. L.A. was the only playoff club to win its season series against Atlanta (7-5).
But the main obstacle for any team hoping to exploit the Braves' weaknesses is to get through Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine—whatever the order. "The only chance a manager gets to set his rotation is in the first round," Glavine says. "After that you're at the mercy of whether you go three, four or five games, off days, things like that. So maybe a manager doesn't have his big gun pitching where he wants him. With us, it doesn't matter."
This year the Braves' staff broke the major league record for strikeouts (1,245) in a season. What is more astounding than eclipsing the mark set by the 1969 Houston Astros (1,221) is doing so while allowing the fewest walks in the league. The Atlanta staff is so good that when the Braves scored three or four runs in a game, they were 26-12 (.684). Moreover, Atlanta enters this postseason better armed than in '93, when a fierce pennant race with the San Francisco Giants drained the team, or in '95, when a weary Smoltz sputtered at the close of his first season following elbow surgery. Here's why the Braves' rotation is stronger than in its past two postseasons: