Steve Avery does not look very far ahead. Shoot, the 23-year-old Atlanta Brave pitcher tugs his cap so low on his head it's a wonder he can find his way to the mound. He has to tilt his chin up and his head back just to see his infielders gobble up all those grounders behind him. "Just away to keep focused," he says. "It's just me and the catcher. Hey, I don't want to have my hat up like I'm having my picture taken out there."
"The guy is a practical joker all the time," Atlanta catcher Greg Olson says, "but when that cap comes down, watch out." Even when pitching coach Leo Mazzone needs to visit Avery on the mound to buy time for relievers warming up in the Braves' bullpen, he does so with the timidity of a postman headed for the Bumsteads' mailbox. Then Mazzone tells Avery, "Just act like you're listening to me. I'll leave in a couple of minutes. Promise."
Mazzone knows better than to pose a question to Avery, especially to inquire about his stamina. "I hate that," Avery says. "If I'm out there, I'm fine."
So how's Avery doing? No need to ask. He kept Mazzone safely in the dugout through two complete-game victories last week. First he beat the first-place San Francisco Giants 5-3 on Aug. 23 to open a stunning Brave three-game sweep at Candlestick Park. So dominant was Avery in that game that he retired the final 11 batters, the last six with nothing but fastballs. Then last Saturday he dismissed the Chicago Cubs 5-1 with just 89 pitches, only 21 of which were called balls. It was the Braves' 21st victory in Avery's past 23 starts.
Hold on to your hats. Led by Avery's bravery, second-place Atlanta last week seized momentum in the National League West by chopping 3� games off the Giants' lead in six days to close within four games, the closest they have been to San Francisco since May 29. Said the Giants' Barry Bonds, "With the recognition the Braves get worldwide as America's team, it seems like that even though we're in first place, we're chasing them."
San Francisco could dispel that notion this week in another three-game series with the Braves, this time in Atlanta. Thereafter the Giants will have 29 games remaining, none of them with the Braves.
What enabled Atlanta to establish an edge over San Francisco in every place but the standings was a glaring disparity in starting pitching. Atlanta's four aces—Avery (15-4 through last weekend), Tom Glavine (16-5), Greg Maddux (15-9) and John Smoltz (13-9)—have been almost unbeatable since the All-Star break, going 24-5 while chewing up chunks of innings. If you're going to beat the Braves, you had better get into their bullpen or be fortunate enough to draw their fifth starter, a spot Pete Smith and Kent Mercker had filled with a combined 3-9 mark.
"At the end of the year, we may make some of the big expectations about us having a bunch of 20-game winners come true," says Glavine, who, in beating the Giants 6-4 on Aug. 24 and the Cubs 8-2 on Sunday, also won twice last week. "We still have a shot at three 20-game winners. If we do that, it'll go a long way toward us winning this thing. We've pitched well all year, but since we got Fred McGriff, we've been scoring runs consistently."
After Sunday's victory the Braves were 28-9 since McGriff arrived on July 20 in a trade with the San Diego Padres, leaving San Francisco manager Dusty Baker to observe, "I'm just glad they didn't get him a month earlier." Well, Atlanta did try to get McGriff as long ago as the eve of Game 1 of the 1992 World Series, when a representative of the Braves told San Diego that Atlanta was "strongly interested in McGriff." The Padres showed no inclination to move the slugging first baseman at that time or upon subsequent overtures made by the Braves in May and June, because San Diego general manager Joe McIlvaine was resisting the wishes of cost-cutting owner Tom Werner to move the high-priced contracts of both McGriff and third baseman Gary Sheffield.
That stance by McIlvaine contributed to his decision to leave the club on June 9. Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz then was able to swing a deal with MeIlvaine's replacement, Randy Smith, to get McGriff for three prospects.