- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Besides being the originator of the 12-o'clock shadow, Torre had been the spectacularly unsuccessful manager of the New York Mets for 4� years. "I learned some lessons," he says. In his keynote address to the Braves in spring training, he told them to run hard, play hard, have fun and see what happens. He also wanted them to get in the habit of winning ball games, so they won their first six, and 12 of 14. They finished the spring with the best record in baseball, 18-7. "Yes, we tried to win in spring training, but I never took a pitcher out of a game or pinch-hit for a guy in order to win," Torre says. "I just tried to instill a winning approach."
Torre's first priority was the much-maligned pitching staff, so he put his two former Met pitching coaches, Rube Walker and Bob Gibson, to work. "Rube taught them how to pitch," says Torre, "and Gibby taught them how to win." The pitchers and catchers sat through extensive meetings with the coaches. "More than anything else," says Gibson, "we tried to teach them to be aggressive out there. We wanted them to be on the offense instead of the defense, to challenge the batters. They had it backwards—they were trying to get hitters out on the inside of the plate, when really it's the inside pitch which is supposed to set up the outside pitch.
"Now I hear them telling each other the same things I was saying to them in spring training. I don't care if I don't get the credit, just as long as they do it."
The results have been astonishing. Through Sunday the staff ERA was 2.07. Rick Mahler, who never before had a shutout, had two already. Bob Walk, with two wins, had doubled his victory total of last year. Hard-luck Tommy Boggs was 1-0, which may not seem like much unless you realize he's 19-42 lifetime. And Niekro, the ace of the staff, is on the disabled list until at least April 23 because of sore ribs.
What's more, there's life in the bullpen. Cox had a tendency to rely too heavily on Camp, but Torre has already shown faith in Hrabosky and Gene Garber. He's been rewarded with six saves—three from Camp, two from Garber and one from Hrabosky. "What this pitching staff lacked was an identity," says Torre. "The staff hasn't had one since Spahn, Burdette and Buhl."
Torre also named Bob Horner captain, the team's first since Hank Aaron left in 1974. Although Torre says Horner earned the designation, this may also be a Wizard of Oz trick, imparting heart with a pocket watch. It worked for the Wizard, and it's worked for Torre. Horner has had three game-winning hits and is fielding third base with unaccustomed ease and skill.
The new face on the Braves belongs to the romantically named Butler. He's what they used to call cocky, but he's also fast and he gives the Braves their first legitimate centerfielder since, oh, Bill Bruton. Naturally he takes a lot of kidding in Atlanta about his name: "People are always asking me where Scarlett is, and when I steal a base, I'm 'gone with the wind.' I don't care. It's all hype." FRANKLY, BUTLER DOESN'T GIVE A DAMN.
Butler, who will carry a lot of offensive responsibility as the leadoff man, had stolen six bases and scored nine runs in the first 11 games. Batting behind him is Glenn Hubbard, a bearded dervish of a second baseman, who, like Butler, was an outstanding high school wrestler. Hubbard and Horner give the Braves the distinction of being the first team in major league history with two characters from Mother Goose in the same infield, HOT HORNER AT THE CORNER. HUBBARD'S CUPBOARD NO LONGER BARE.
The Braves have had a shortstop problem for most of their years in Atlanta. Last season it looked as if Rafael Ramirez was the latest problem; he hit only .218 and made 30 errors in just 95 games. The Braves nearly traded Boggs to the Phillies for Larry Bowa. "When we met just before spring training," says Mullen, "Ted said he thought we would stick with Rafael. We had said he could be our short-stop for the next 10 years, and we weren't going to let one year change that." Dal Maxvill, another new coach, worked hard with Ramirez, and so far he has made only two errors. Better still, he was batting .333 through Sunday.
The Braves have always had hitters, and that hasn't changed, what with Chambliss at first base and Claudell Washington and Murphy in the outfield. Murphy, who had four home runs and 12 RBIs, is playing his fifth position in his fifth year with the team. "I'd like to think of myself as versatile, but I suspect they're trying to keep me as far away from home plate as possible," says the former catcher-first baseman-center-fielder and recently leftfielder and right-fielder. The present catcher is Bruce Benedict, the only Brave named to last year's All-Star team.