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During the off-season, Atlanta lost a pitcher it had always had, a pitcher it never had and a pitcher who became famous by getting lost. The Braves released veteran knuckleballer Phil Niekro, failed to sign free agent reliever Rich Gossage and, on the day the team highlight film had its premiere, received word that Pascual Perez, who once got lost on the way to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, had been jailed in the Dominican Republic on charges of trafficking cocaine. Perez was found guilty of a lesser possession charge and released. But because of legal complications and probable intervention by the commissioner, Perez will discover that finding his way back to Atlanta's stadium is even more difficult than it was two years ago.

Out of desperation for a pitcher, the Braves took a serious spring look at Bob Galasso, who pitched in a Stan Musial League in Atlanta last year. A former Brewer and Mariner, Galasso spent the last two years "working at McDonald's, selling cars and picking up trash," before landing a bank job. His comeback began with a tryout for a pitcher's role in a film called Slugger's Wife; a technical adviser, who also has ties with the Braves, recommended that Galasso call them. Galasso and his fastball will be a phone call away in Richmond.

Without Perez, Ken Dayley and Rick Mahler will fill out the rotation alongside veteran Len Barker and Craig McMurtry, the 1983 NL Rookie Pitcher of the Year. Dayley is one of the reasons Atlanta let Niekro go, says manager Joe Torre. He's also lefthanded, and the Braves have had only 29 wins from southpaws the past two seasons. Mahler found a slider in Puerto Rico this winter while working with his Santurce manager, Baltimore pitching coach Ray Miller. New pitch in hand, Mahler, who had spent most of 1983 at Richmond, went 10-2 for the Cangrejeros (Crabbers).

Concerns about the Braves' starters will become moot if the bullpen isn't at its best. "Some people think we didn't win last year because Bob Horner was injured," says Terry Forster, "but what really hurt us was having Gene Garber injured most of the year." His elbow problems having subsided, Garber will spearhead a trio of short relievers that also includes Forster and Steve Bedrosian.

The rest of the team is sound. Behind double-MVP Dale Murphy and Captain Horner, the '83 Braves were an offensive powerhouse. The only new face in the lineup will be either Gerald Perry or Brad Komminsk, both rookies. Even if the pitching fails, Forster sees one other way for the Braves to win. "If our guys go out and score 10 runs a game," he says, "we shouldn't have any trouble."

Atlanta led the NL in runs (746), batting (.272) and making double plays (176). The Braves probably missed a second straight division title because elbow problems dropped reliever Gene Garber from 30 saves in '82 to nine in '83, and a broken wrist ended Bob Horner's season on Aug. 15, when the Braves led L.A. by 5½ games.