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No Worries For a Winner

It's amazing now four 1993 playoff losses and one off-season dirt-bike accident can raise doubts about a team that has won 296 regular-season games and three division titles in the last three years. Suddenly there are whispers about the health of the Braves' rotation, the lack of a big-name closer, the potential drop-off in offensive production and the infusion of too much youth into the lineup.

"It's just wishful thinking on the part of the naysayers," says Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz. "People like to see others fail. It makes them comfortable, it makes them feel good. I think they are wrong. We will not fail."

Agreed. And here's why.

Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz constitute the top rotation in baseball. Last year Atlanta became the first National League team to have four 15-game winners since the 1986 Mets and the first to have three 18-game winners since the '85 cards. The doubters are assuming that just because these four have missed only two starts in three years, a couple of them are due to get hurt. But why? They're young, strong, durable and mechanically sound. Together they might win 75 games this year and—again—not miss a turn.

But, the doomsayers then note, when it gets to be the ninth inning, who knows whose turn it will be? Granted, the Braves don't have a Bryan Harvey to close out the opposition, but not having a high-profile closer didn't hurt Atlanta when it was dominating the old NL West in recent years. The team has had a different save leader every year of the '90s; in fact, in each of those years, the save leader late in the season has been different from the save leader early on. When manager Bobby Cox finds a hot hand, he stays with it. This year any combination of closers could emerge from among Greg McMichael, Mike Stanton and Mark Wohlers. The bottom line is this: Last season the Atlanta bullpen was arguably the best in the National League—it had the lowest ERA (3.15), allowed the fewest home runs and had the most strikeouts per nine innings.

Now let's talk about those 36 home runs the Braves lopped off by releasing leftfielder Ron Gant on March 15, six weeks alter he broke his right leg when he lost control of his motorbike. Boohoo. Poor Atlanta. The Braves only have first baseman Fred McGriff, the game's leading home run hitter the last seven years, for the full season. (Acquired last July from the Padres, McGriff ignited the Atlanta offense, which averaged 5.77 runs a game after he arrived compared with 3.99 before.) And Atlanta's stuck with having to replace Gant with rookie Tony Tarasco, who hit .330 last season at Triple A Richmond and is the best defensive outfielder on the team. And what's worse, the Braves ate forced to start another rookie, Javy Lopez, behind the plate. Gosh, can he possibly replace Greg Olson and Damon Berryhill, who combined to hit .236 with 12 home runs and 67 RBIs last year? Lopez hit only .305 with 17 homers and 74 RBIs in 100 games for Richmond in '93.

"It's a scary thought," says Atlanta shortstop Jeff Blauser, "but the young guys coming up might produce more than some of the guys we have here."

Anybody still want to bet against them?

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PHOTO

JIM MIDDLETON

Tarasco and his able glove will fill the gap left by Gant in leftfield.