The Atlanta Braves' David Justice had 106 RBIs through Sunday, Fred McGriff has been a true Padre-send, and Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery are all contenders for the Cy Young Award. But the real reason the Braves were able to overtake the San Francisco Giants in the National League West last week was a 26-year-old rookie pitcher with below-average heat and above-average heart named Greg McMichael.
Since late July, when he was handed the role of bullpen stopper, McMichael, a righthander, had racked up 15 saves without blowing a save opportunity. Without him, the Braves could not have gone 41-14 since the All-Star break, erasing a Giants' 10-game lead in the process. Not bad for a guy who has been told more than once to give up baseball. "I've got nothing to lose," McMichael says softly, when asked about the pennant race and the importance of his role in it. "I wasn't supposed to make the team. I wasn't supposed to do well as the closer. I wasn't supposed to do a lot of things. The odds have been stacked against me. I look at this as another obstacle."
When McMichael was an eighth-grader in Knoxville, Tenn., doctors found cartilage damage in his right knee, caused primarily by a growth spurt. McMichael was told that he would never play sports again. He says he "did nothing" for 1½ years, but the knee healed enough for him to pitch again as a high school sophomore, although doctors forbade him to play another position or another sport. He went on to pitch for three years at Tennessee and was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the seventh round of the June 1988 draft. After three decent minor league seasons, he underwent a fourth operation on his right knee and was released in March '91. Dom Chiti, then the Indians' minor league pitching coordinator, told him it was time to hang it up. Instead, McMichael drove two hours from Knoxville to Kingsport, Tenn., for a tryout with the Braves. They signed him, and he spent two seasons in their minor league system. Last winter Atlanta invited McMichael to '93 spring training as a nonroster player. "My wife and I cried," he says. "I'd watched these guys on TV for two years. The National League champs, inviting me to my first big league camp. It snowballed from there." McMichael didn't think he would make the talented Brave staff. "[Pitching coach] Leo Mazzone had never seen me pitch," he says, "and [manager] Bobby Cox didn't know who I was. I was wearing number 60. My locker was on the end, next to the showers, but that was good because I met everyone as they went to the shower."
"From day one," says Cox, "he threw lights out." McMichael made the club and worked middle relief before saving a game on July 28. As of Sunday he had worked 20 games since then, with a 0.81 ERA. Says another Atlanta reliever, Steve Bedrosian, 'Phenom...out of nowhere...great story You think, How does he do it? He throws 78 miles per hour."
McMichael's best pitch is a changeup; he can make it run down and away, or dart down and in, so it's effective against both lefthanded and righthanded hitters. The odd movements come from a funky, deceptive delivery in which he often releases the ball from a point near his right ear. "I accidentally learned how to make the ball move by throwing the wrong way," says McMichael, "But now I can make it move on purpose." Then he adds, "After what I've been through, I go out and say, This is what I got: Hit it." No one has.
The rookie closer with a funky changeup has braved long odds to become a surprise savior for Atlanta.