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Original Issue

Bang-Bang Play

The games were as close as this call as Atlanta won three of four from Cincy in a National League West battle

Maybe it was because 2,000 fans discovered that their seats were already taken. Or maybe it was because The Atlanta Journal-Constitution saw fit to print a postseason-style position-by-position comparison of the two teams. Or maybe it was because of the fumes emanating from the mysterious bottle in the locker of Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jose Rijo. Whatever it was, this four-game series in June between the Reds and the host Atlanta Braves last week sure didn't seem like a four-game series in June.

Here were two division rivals, each hotter than Georgia asphalt, drawing four sellout crowds over four glorious days at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. And what the fans witnessed were 38 tense innings in which neither team ever led by more than two runs. "For June baseball it doesn't get more thrilling," said Braves catcher Greg Olson after his team had taken three of four from the Reds and tomahawk-chopped Cincinnati's lead in the National League West to 1½ games. "The NBA just ended, and everyone is waiting for September to see the pennant race. But they may just have seen half of one already."

After Atlanta scratched out a 2-0 victory in the series finale on Sunday, Braves manager Bobby Cox lent a bit of perspective to the proceedings. "The Reds have good pitching, good hitting, good defense and a great bullpen," he said. "Now I'm going to go grab a sandwich."

O.K., so it was just a four-game series in June. But it was special, too. The Reds hit town on Thursday having won six in a row and 18 of their last 22; the Braves had won seven straight and 16 of 18. The series was so big that Game 1 was beyond sellout, drawing an extra 2,000 fans because of an accidental duplication of tickets. The Journal-Constitution spared no space in previewing the confrontation, moving one of its sportswriters, Joe Strauss, to ask, "If the Braves sweep, is there a parade on Monday?"

Each of the four games was a tightly contested jewel: Cincinnati snatched the first one 7-5 in 10 innings and then lost 3-2 on Friday (again in 10) and 2-1 on Saturday before being shut out on Sunday. For the 178,405 who showed up and got to sit down, going to grab a sandwich was not advisable.

Mostly this was a series about arms. "The two pitching staffs going at it might be the two best in the division, the two best in the league," said Reds second baseman Bill Doran. No need to be so modest, Bill; right now the two staffs are the best in cither league, no question.

More specifically, this was a series about Kent Mercker's arm, as the Braves lefthander emerged as the savior in the Atlanta bullpen. In fact, the 24-year-old Mercker emerged from said pen during all four games, saving two of them and winning one. "We were the two hottest teams in the National League," said Mercker on Sunday. "And now, we're the hottest one."

When the series wasn't about arms, it was about other parts of the anatomy. The Reds' 5'7" Bip Roberts was acquired for his legs last December in a trade with the San Diego Padres for reliever Randy Myers. His emergence as a leadoff hitter (.297 average, 18 stolen bases through Sunday) and his versatility as an infielder-outfielder have allowed Cincinnati manager Lou Piniella to both manufacture runs and double-switch with abandon. In the Reds' clubhouse shortly before Friday's game, Roberts spied teammate Reggie Sanders and said, "Hey Reggie, where am I playing tonight?"

"Second base," said Sanders.

"Damn," muttered Roberts, chewing on a toothpick.

Was that a problem? a visitor wondered. "Yeah," said Roberts, "I thought I'd be in the outfield. Now I've got to get dressed again. Got to put on my cup."

You don't wear a protective cup in the outfield, Bip? What if you were to start in the outfield and get moved to second base during the game?

"That's when I have to rely on my hands," Roberts said.

The sure hands, strong arms and swift legs—along with the enviable depth of these two clubs—had made the Reds and Braves preseason cofavorites to win the division. But they came to this June crossroads by different paths. The Braves, who last year went to the brink of a world championship, made virtually no off-season changes. They were not unchanged, however. With success came distractions; imagine Cinderella starting life over after the ball while wading through fan mail from Nome to Tokyo. "I think the only place that TBS [Atlanta's superstation] doesn't go to is Zimbabwe," says Mercker.

Though the team struggled early in the season, there was no panic. "Even when we were in last place, I felt like we had the team to beat," says outfielder Ron Gant. "We're in second place now and heading to first."

The Reds, who had the worst record in the majors in the second half of '91, underwent an overhaul this past winter, making four significant trades. They also gambled $400,000 on free-agent Scott Bankhead, a 28-year-old righthander, late of the Seattle Mariners, whose two shoulder operations scared away every other team from offering him a guaranteed deal.

Cast as a reliever, Bankhead has become a middle-innings ace. On Thursday he shut down the Braves for 2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings with the score tied 5-all and ran his record to 8-1 when Glenn Braggs drilled a two-run pinch homer in the 10th. There were the obligatory smirks in the Cincinnati clubhouse afterward about Bankhead's good fortune on the won-lost ledgers—Rijo earlier had dubbed him the Win Bandit—but opponents were hitting a pitiable .164 against him.

But does he really qualify as a member of the once-feared Nasty Boys bullpen that keyed Cincinnati's 1990 success? Bankhead is not a hard thrower, and as he talked softly to reporters on Thursday night while his postgame burger cooled at his side, he seemed not to possess even a wisp of waspishness. "He's not nasty," says Reds pitching coach Larry Rothschild, "not in the sense he's going to blow the ball by people. But in his mentality on the mound, yeah, he's all business."

All messed up is what the Atlanta bullpen has been for most of this season. Entering this series, Atlanta's relievers had surrendered 22 homers—while the starters had given up just 14. "When pitchers begin to force location, that takes the live action off the end of the pitch," says Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "When you do that, you put the ball in what [Atlanta third baseman] Terry Pendleton calls the Love Zone."

On Friday, Atlanta hoppers David Justice and Brian Hunter made back-to-back love connections off Reds starter Greg Swindell in the seventh to spark the Braves to the 3-2 victory.

Rightfielder Justice then kick-started Atlanta again on Saturday with an RBI single in the first. His hot hitting (.320 over his last 21 games through Sunday) has coincided with the Braves' surge, but Justice is getting a tepid reception from Atlantans. That may be because of his refusal this spring to have his picture taken with the team, saying he felt he was underpaid; or their frustration with his various maladies (bad back, sore knee); or a general annoyance with his cool demeanor. Whatever, Justice was struck in the on-deck circle earlier this season with that most Georgian of foodstuffs—a peanut—and radio station WKLS has cut a derisive takeoff on the John Lennon tune Imagine: "Imagine no Dave Justice, it's easy if you try...."

After Braves lefty Steve Avery went 7‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings on Saturday and survived 11 hits—"If you want to call them hits," he scoffed—Mercker followed him and got his first save of the season. Mercker began last season as a closer but drifted into middle relief and then the fifth starter slot; he was perceived to be wild and too reliant on his fastball. But this year, as the Braves' bullpen failed again and again, he waited for his chance, and he got it last weekend. After Saturday's save he was like a 16-year-old at the wheel of a new Porsche. "I love this situation, I love this situation," Mercker said. "This is how I envisioned pitching in the big leagues."

For the finale on Sunday, Cincinnati sent Rijo to the mound. If Rijo's is not the Reds' most effective arm (he was 3-6 at week's end), it is at least their most odoriferous. Every day, Rijo slips a surgical glove over his left hand, pulls a bottle of snake oil from the shelf in his locker and rubs the pungent, viscous goo over his right elbow, in which he developed tendinitis in the spring. The snake oil salesman in this case is Rijo's mother, who sends him fresh supplies of the alleged curative from the Dominican Republic. Unsightly particles drift about at the bottom of the bottle. "I don't know," Rijo says, holding the gunk up to the light. "There might be snake vertebrae or something in there."

Whatever it was, the stuff worked like a charm on Sunday as Rijo allowed just one run on seven hits and fanned nine in seven innings. But righty Mike Bielecki, Atlanta's fifth starter, threw better, giving up just five hits in eight innings before giving way to Marvin Freeman and then Mercker, who completed the shutout and grabbed another save. Said Rijo, "The way they're playing, you have to play perfect to beat them."

So for four days in June, two teams who know their way to the World Series measured each other for the months ahead. "It was exciting baseball, and it deserved the hype," said Doran. "We lost three of four, but this isn't going to change my mind about the team we have."

His team takes on the Braves 11 more times this season, and the next round starts Friday in Cincinnati. If there was a lesson in Atlanta for Reds fans, it was this: Grab your sandwiches now.



Games of inches: Roberts (left) slid to beat the stretch by Brian Hunter on Saturday; Joe Oliver's tag nipped Justice at the plate on Sunday.



[See caption above.]



Atlanta fans showed up in force—and in full regalia—with an early case of pennant fever.



As the weather gets hot, so do the players: Deion Sanders goes neon after fanning.



The Cincy bench was a little glum by Sunday afternoon, but the Reds left town still in first place and prepared for a long, hard race.



Mercker was a bull from the pen, earning a win and two saves in four outings.