- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Along with his leather and his lumber, Pendleton has brought leadership. When Gant struggled early in the season, Pendleton was in the clubhouse to give him a pat on the back. When Glavine returns to the mound after running to cover first base, Pendleton is there to chat and let him catch his breath. With a nickname like TP he's a natural fit in the Braves' scheme, and he fills the void of consummate professionalism created by the trade of slugger Dale Murphy to the Phillies last season. Pendleton is never too high or too low. "It was easy for me to walk into the clubhouse," he says. "They could have said, 'Here comes TP, making all that money.' But instead they said, 'Here comes TP, he can help us win.' "
When Justice got hurt, Pendleton pressed and heard a cautionary word. "Hey, homey," said Otis Nixon, "you can't do this by yourself." Nixon, who has replaced Justice in rightfield and will probably replace Lonnie Smith in left when Justice returns, then lent a hand and a couple of legs to the cause. The Braves, who needed more speed after stealing only 92 bases in '90, acquired the 32-year-old Nixon from the Montreal Expos in April for catcher Jimmy Kremers and a minor league pitcher. Nixon, playing part-time for most of his career, has reached 200 steals in fewer games than Lou Brock did. "We figured he'd get about 180 at bats, play defense late in the game and steal a key base in the eighth or ninth inning," says Cox. "But we got more than we bargained for." Indeed, Nixon's .318 average at week's end was 90 points above his career mark, and with a league-high 63 thefts, Atlanta's club record for steals had already gone with his wind.
Nixon attributes his improved average to hitting guru Harry (the Hat) Walker and to Hal McRae, the Royals manager who was Nixon's batting coach in Montreal. "Stay back, stay compact, keep your stroke short, be selective, be patient," says Nixon, rattling off his plate routine. He attributes his speed to a five-minute pregame stretching regimen and to genes passed on from his mother, Gracie.
When Otis and his younger brother, Donnell, a Triple A outfielder in the Cleveland Indians' organization who once stole 144 bases in the minors, were in their teens, Gracie could spot them a healthy head start on an Evergreen, N.C., playground and still catch them. "She ran until she was 38," says Otis. "Whenever we got together with other guys, they'd say, 'Get your mother. She's faster than everybody.' "
Better speed, hitting and defense have certainly helped the Braves, but according to Cox, "It'll come down to pitching. It always does." Schuerholz, who had bid a premature farewell to such young arms as David Cone and Danny Jackson while in Kansas City, made sure to avoid the same mistake with the Braves. Atlanta named its rotation in spring training and stuck with it. That meant standing by John Smoltz, 24, who was 2-11 on July 7. But things started to change when he began working with sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn. Last Saturday, Smoltz allowed just two hits in seven innings in a 4-0 win over the Astros to raise his record to 6-1 since the All-Star break. "In a nutshell, I needed a chance to open up," says Smoltz. "Before, I didn't feel like it was my job to bring anyone down with my problems."
Last spring, Cox also cast Berenguer as his stopper. Billed at some of his six major league stops as Señor Smoke, the Bandido and the General, Berenguer had always filled the role of setup man, with only 14 saves in 13 seasons. "All the time I've been dreaming, saying I can do it, I can handle the pressure," he says.
What may have held him back so long is his inability to hold back; he is prone to dramatic gestures. After fanning a hitter, Berenguer sometimes "shoots" him with his index finger, and then blows away imaginary gun smoke. These days after every whiff, he does an overhead maneuver, disdainfully slapping the back of his glove on his right hand.
Through the Astro series, Berenguer had allowed only one of the 27 runners he has inherited to score. "I think the main reason Juan's doing what he's doing is he doesn't care who's hitting, he's going to attack him," says pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "That mental approach helps. So does his 90-mile-per-hour fastball."
Some strikeout victims have suggested that Berenguer is fortunate he doesn't often have to face fastballs himself—he might find more than a few aimed at him. Still, he isn't about to stop his flamenco flourish. "People say I get too wild in there," says Berenguer. "When I strike them out, I get excited. There's nothing I can do."
And who in Atlanta can help getting excited these days? Well, maybe Braves owner Ted Turner, who put in a cameo appearance at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with his fiancée, Jane Fonda, on July 31. The couple left in the third inning with his club losing 6-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Braves rallied to win 8-6. Though he continues to spend liberally on the team, Turner keeps his hands off the day-to-day operations. Nonetheless, he found time to thank the team for its competitive play in a clubhouse speech on May 8. The Braves responded to Turner's oratory by beating St. Louis 17-1. It was a far cry from some earlier Turner talks. Recalls Blauser, "Near the end of one year he came in and said, 'Look at the bright side. If you finish last, you get the first pick.' "