Wright has been the team's most unlikely success story. In 18 starts from May 27 through last weekend he went 11-1 with a 2.79 ERA. On Friday night he allowed three runs in seven innings to collect his career-high 13th win. "He's the best pitcher in the National League right now," says Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
It's been a Lazarus-like resurrection for Wright, who seven years ago won three postseason games for the Cleveland Indians as a 21-year-old rookie and became the second-youngest Game 7 starter in World Series history. The cocksure son of former major leaguer Clyde Wright seemed destined for greatness, but a series of right shoulder ailments quickly derailed his career: After a 12-win sophomore season Wright landed on the disabled list twice in '99, then had two shoulder surgeries in the next two years. He was 7-9 with a 7.27 ERA from 2000 to 2002, when he was released by the Indians at season's end.
A year ago, struggling as a reliever with the San Diego Padres (8.37 ERA in 47 1/3 innings), Wright wondered if he'd even be pitching in the majors in 2004. Despite Wright's ugly numbers, Schuerholz, on the recommendation of four scouts who were impressed with the velocity and life on the righthander's pitches, put in a claim on Wright when the Padres placed him on waivers in August. When San Diego manager Bruce Bochy called Wright in his Houston hotel room to tell him that he'd been picked up by the Braves (the only team to claim him), Wright thought Bochy had dialed a wrong number. "I was shocked that someone wanted me," he says. "But there was nothing that was going to change for me in San Diego. I was going to finish the year struggling in the bullpen and come back in the spring and have to fight for a job. Everything changed when I went to Atlanta."
Wright has thrived under the tutelage of Mazzone, a guru renowned for revitalizing floundering careers. "When I first saw him [last year], he was just a hard, hard thrower who was all over the place," says Mazzone, whose long list of successful reclamation projects includes Hampton, Chris Hammond, John Burkett, Mike Remlinger and Rudy Seanez. "What Jaret's learned here is that 90-percent effort on pitches with better location is better than throwing the ball as hard as you can with less location. Throwing with less effort, his delivery has become much smoother and more consistent."
A pitcher who once relied on overpowering hitters with a blazing fastball, Wright now unleashes his mid-90s heater only rarely. Mazzone also helped Wright develop a two-seam sinker that has become a primary weapon. After Wright faced four batters and retired the side without allowing a run in the first inning of his first start as a Brave in April, he found Mazzone in the dugout and asked, "Is that all there is to it?"
Since coming to Atlanta, Wright has also increased weight training on his shoulders to improve his stamina. He acknowledges that his hefty rookie-year workload--between his minor and major league starts he logged 216 innings, including the postseason--might have contributed to his injury problems. At week's end his 152 innings were his most since 1998.
So, can the unlikely trio of Ortiz-Wright-Hampton keep the Braves rolling? While it may seem premature to start sizing up potential playoff opponents ("I like our chances against the Cardinals," one Braves player said last weekend, "but the Cubs scare me to death"), it would take a historic collapse at this point for Atlanta to miss the postseason. No league or division leader has ever blown a lead of eight or more games after Sept. 1.
Having proved their doubters wrong thus far, the Braves will soon set about trying to get another monkey off their backs: Their 12 straight postseason appearances have produced but one world championship, and that was nine years ago. "Given the lower expectations and how far this team has come, this is already one of the most special years in our run," says Smoltz. "But that doesn't mean our standard is different. We're still here to win the World Series."