When the principal owners of the defending American and National League champions ventured into their respective clubhouses recently, each confronted a pitcher whose performance could cost his team a return trip to the World Series. On Aug. 30, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner reportedly engaged in a schoolyard battle of machismo with portly lefthander David Wells, the butt of the Boss's wrath. Lately Wells has been hit harder than the Yankees postgame spread, further weakening what has been a shaky rotation. He reacted to Steinbrenner's chiding with a dubious declaration of his toughness: Wells threatened to drop the 67-year-old grandfather, apparently setting his sights on the AARP heavyweight title belt.
On Sept. 15, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner approached reliever Mark Wohlers with considerably more humor, though with equal concern. "If you don't shape up, we'll ship you out, Wohlers," joked Turner. "Even I could throw a shutout inning once in a while with my 60-mile-an-hour fastball."
Wohlers laughed at his boss, but he wasn't laughing at some of his hate mail, including one letter on a page from a yellow legal pad calling him "a sorry sack of s—-" for blowing four wins for righthander Greg Maddux this year. Three days after needling Wohlers, Turner announced that he would be giving $1 billion to the United Nations' humanitarian causes. To Wohlers's regret, the organization's global relief efforts do not encompass the work of the Atlanta bullpen.
"It's the one spot where they save money," Wohlers, a seven-year vet, says of the Braves' salary structure. "That's the way it's always been here. This year I probably have more experience than the rest of the bullpen combined. I don't know if I'd say this has been my toughest year, but it's been a difficult one."
The Yankees and the Braves are like every other team headed for the postseason: flawed. At week's end the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants were battling for the National League West title. But barring a collapse by the National League Central-leading Houston Astros that would allow the five-and-dime Pittsburgh Pirates to sneak into the playoffs, the other seven postseason entrants appeared set, and none of them could claim to be a lock to win even the first round.
The American League field is particularly unpredictable, with the Yankees and the Cleveland Indians getting the yips about their starting pitching, the Baltimore Orioles staggering to the finish without much help from their righthanded hitters and the Seattle Mariners playing with a revamped bullpen that's still highly flammable.
In the National League, Houston is roughly a .500 team with little postseason experience, while the Florida Marlins have questions about the heart of their batting order. Taking all of this into account, the 1997 postseason is no different from the previous five: Some team will have to send Atlanta's starters to the showers to keep the Braves from winning the world championship. While other clubs scramble for a fourth starter or use a pitcher on short rest in the opening round, the Braves—with Maddux, lefthander Tom Glavine, righty John Smoltz and southpaw Denny Neagle—confidently proceed with business as usual. "This team is built to play a 19-game schedule, not just one series," says Smoltz, calculating the most games possible in the postseason. "We benefit from that more than anybody else."
In 11 postseason series the Braves have played in the 1990s, only one team has eliminated them by beating their starting pitchers more than twice: the Yankees, in last year's World Series. Even then, the series turned in Game 4 when the Atlanta bullpen spit up a three-run lead with six outs to go. The Braves' starters are 28-17 in the postseason this decade; their relievers are 7-11, which helps explain the club's 12-19 mark in one-run games. "We're no different than anyone else," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox says. "If your bullpen is hot, you're in good shape. If it's not, you're in trouble."
Wohlers has been decidedly cool, allowing 12 runs and 17 hits in his last 13⅔ innings through Sunday. "I've been the one struggling, not the setup guys," he says, referring to what has been a chronic soft spot on the club. The Braves have patched up an injury-riddled bullpen with lefthander Alan Embree and three righthanded rookies who weren't even in the team's major league spring camp—Chad Fox, who had elbow surgery last year; Mike Cather, who was released in 1995 by the Texas Rangers organization; and Kerry Ligtenberg, who was acquired from an independent league team in January '96 for six dozen baseballs and two dozen bats. Those four relievers, none of whom is older than 27, had a combined 2.80 ERA, though their ability to get big outs in the pressure of October's cauldron is unknown.
No team, though, is as green as Houston, Atlanta's likely Division Series opponent. Rightfielder Derek Bell is the only Astros regular with postseason experience, and that amounts to three plate appearances with the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays. While Cox has won (38) and managed (70) more playoff games than anyone in history, Astros rookie skipper Larry Dierker, who pitched 14 seasons in the majors, never played in a postseason game. "What's difficult is that I don't have a reference point," Dierker says.