This was supposed to be last call for the Atlanta Braves, the year the lights went out in Georgia. The Braves lost more often at home than they won in 2001, had to replace three of four starting infielders because of injuries or ineffectiveness, cast their lot with a Jurassic first baseman rescued from the Mexican League and sent out a light-hitting playoff lineup that included guys named Franco and Bako, who could be mistaken for lost Marx Brothers. Maybe the winners of 10 consecutive National League East titles nonetheless swept their way to the League Championship Series solely because of the greatness encoded in their memories and the usual befuddling postseason play of the Houston Astros. However, something more, something new also seemed to be at work. If this wasn't last call for a powerhouse, it was because righthander John Smoltz was handling matters at closing time.
Smoltz, the winningest postseason starter in history, appears to have become a dominant postseason closer. His attainment of this lofty status climaxes a dazzling conversion that has steeled the Atlanta bullpen. Smoltz always had an unparalleled sense of the moment—his career 12-4 record and 2.60 earned run average as a playoff starter is testament to that—but now the moments are louder, more compressed, more dramatic. He peers over the precipice and appreciates the view, even if he hasn't adopted the traditional closer's swagger. "I go out with the idea that I have a good chance of giving up the lead," Smoltz says. "This job has a lot of humility built in."
To the Astros he gave up nothing more damaging than a solo home run by Vinny Castilla in the ninth inning of Game 1 with the Braves ahead by four. All told, Smoltz worked four superb innings in the three games, picking up two saves and getting the on-field handshakes that are the perks of his new job. Instead of the familiar menu of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and Smoltz, the reconfigured Braves serve up Maddux and Glavine with Smoltz. One or two innings from Smoltz four times a week could prove more compelling than seven innings every fifth day.
For a luxury rotation that often has had to make do with a discount closer, Smoltz, barely 19 months after undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery, has been a revelation since his first save, on Aug. 17. Through the Astros series he had converted 12 of 13 save opportunities, hadn't allowed an inherited runner to score and had held the first hitters he faced to a .118 batting average. Those numbers are especially welcome in Atlanta, city of the nervous ninth. Since 1991 the Braves have used Alejandro Pe�a, an aging Jeff Reardon, Mike Stanton, Greg McMichael, Mark Wohlers, Kerry Ligtenberg and John Rocker as closers in the postseason, which isn't exactly a rogues' gallery but is in sharp contrast to the splendid array Atlanta has had at the top of its rotation.
"The one thing that is a pleasure to see is a closer with good control," says Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone in a thinly veiled allusion to Rocker, the clenched-fist Cleveland Indians lefty who was Atlanta's bullpen ace until being traded on June 22. "Smoltz is coming in firing bullets, a nasty slider, a nasty split, but with control. I think [his having been] a starting pitcher helps with the control if you're going to close."
Smoltz, who through last Friday's division series clincher had walked five in 38 innings as a reliever, brings a broad palette of pitches to a job that usually requires only two: a 90-mph-plus fastball and some other out pitch. In the ninth inning of Game 2, while protecting Glavine's one-run lead, Smoltz used a splitter to get Houston leftfielder Lance Berkman to rap into a double play that was started and finished by the fortysomething Julio Franco, the Mexican League trouper whose best position at this stage of his career is the batter's box. Smoltz then battled Moises Alou, the third-leading hitter in the National League, to a 3-and-2 count before inducing him to pop up to end the only 1-0 game in the two-year history of Enron Field.
"That was a hanging slider, and I should have killed that pitch," Alou said. "But when a guy throws 98 and has the other stuff that Smoltz has, he's going to keep you a little off balance. He was nasty enough when he was a starter, but now he knows he's got only one inning and can give it all he's got. New ligament in his elbow. New pitcher."
Smoltz had the surgery in March 2000. He returned to action 14 months later but faltered as a member of the rotation. The Braves won three of his five starts, but Smoltz pitched only 25 innings. His elbow could not handle the strain. He returned to the disabled list on June 10, which could prove to be the demarcation line for a productive new phase in an already rich career.
Atlanta certainly needed a one-inning wonder. Twelve days after Smoltz went on the disabled list, Rocker was exiled to Cleveland for righthander Steve Karsay, who had saved 20 games in 2000, and righthanded specialist Steve Reed. Karsay saved games in five of his first seven opportunities for Atlanta, but he looked more like an intriguing hard thrower than a polished ninth-inning rock for a playoff team. Reed and Karsay did, however, change the dynamics of the relief corps, giving manager Bobby Cox newfound flexibility and confidence.
Against the Astros, Cox perfectly massaged his rebuilt bullpen in Game 3, a 6-2 clinching win. After starter John Burkett had given back half the 4-0 lead provided primarily by unheralded catcher Paul Bako, who had hit a two-run homer and executed a suicide squeeze, Cox used Reed to retire Craig Biggio on a grounder for the second out of the seventh. Cox then summoned lefthander Mike Remlinger to force switch-hitter Jose Vizcaino to bat from his weaker right side; Vizcaino flied out to rightfield. Karsay pitched a perfect eighth, and Smoltz tidied up in the ninth with eight pitches, striking out two batters while hitting 99 mph.