When the principal owners of the defending American and National
League champions ventured into their respective clubhouses
recently, each confronted a pitcher whose performance could cost
his team a return trip to the World Series. On Aug. 30, New York
Yankees owner George Steinbrenner reportedly engaged in a
schoolyard battle of machismo with portly lefthander David
Wells, the butt of the Boss's wrath. Lately Wells has been hit
harder than the Yankees postgame spread, further weakening what
has been a shaky rotation. He reacted to Steinbrenner's chiding
with a dubious declaration of his toughness: Wells threatened to
drop the 67-year-old grandfather, apparently setting his sights
on the AARP heavyweight title belt.
On Sept. 15, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner approached reliever
Mark Wohlers with considerably more humor, though with equal
concern. "If you don't shape up, we'll ship you out, Wohlers,"
joked Turner. "Even I could throw a shutout inning once in a
while with my 60-mile-an-hour fastball."
Wohlers laughed at his boss, but he wasn't laughing at some of
his hate mail, including one letter on a page from a yellow
legal pad calling him "a sorry sack of s---" for blowing four
wins for righthander Greg Maddux this year. Three days after
needling Wohlers, Turner announced that he would be giving $1
billion to the United Nations' humanitarian causes. To Wohlers's
regret, the organization's global relief efforts do not
encompass the work of the Atlanta bullpen.
"It's the one spot where they save money," Wohlers, a seven-year
vet, says of the Braves' salary structure. "That's the way it's
always been here. This year I probably have more experience than
the rest of the bullpen combined. I don't know if I'd say this
has been my toughest year, but it's been a difficult one."
The Yankees and the Braves are like every other team headed for
the postseason: flawed. At week's end the Los Angeles Dodgers
and the San Francisco Giants were battling for the National
League West title. But barring a collapse by the National League
Central-leading Houston Astros that would allow the
five-and-dime Pittsburgh Pirates to sneak into the playoffs, the
other seven postseason entrants appeared set, and none of them
could claim to be a lock to win even the first round.
The American League field is particularly unpredictable, with
the Yankees and the Cleveland Indians getting the yips about
their starting pitching, the Baltimore Orioles staggering to the
finish without much help from their righthanded hitters and the
Seattle Mariners playing with a revamped bullpen that's still
In the National League, Houston is roughly a .500 team with
little postseason experience, while the Florida Marlins have
questions about the heart of their batting order. Taking all of
this into account, the 1997 postseason is no different from the
previous five: Some team will have to send Atlanta's starters to
the showers to keep the Braves from winning the world
championship. While other clubs scramble for a fourth starter or
use a pitcher on short rest in the opening round, the
Braves--with Maddux, lefthander Tom Glavine, righty John Smoltz
and southpaw Denny Neagle--confidently proceed with business as
usual. "This team is built to play a 19-game schedule, not just
one series," says Smoltz, calculating the most games possible in
the postseason. "We benefit from that more than anybody else."
In 11 postseason series the Braves have played in the 1990s,
only one team has eliminated them by beating their starting
pitchers more than twice: the Yankees, in last year's World
Series. Even then, the series turned in Game 4 when the Atlanta
bullpen spit up a three-run lead with six outs to go. The
Braves' starters are 28-17 in the postseason this decade; their
relievers are 7-11, which helps explain the club's 12-19 mark in
one-run games. "We're no different than anyone else," Atlanta
manager Bobby Cox says. "If your bullpen is hot, you're in good
shape. If it's not, you're in trouble."
Wohlers has been decidedly cool, allowing 12 runs and 17 hits in
his last 13 2/3 innings through Sunday. "I've been the one
struggling, not the setup guys," he says, referring to what has
been a chronic soft spot on the club. The Braves have patched up
an injury-riddled bullpen with lefthander Alan Embree and three
righthanded rookies who weren't even in the team's major league
spring camp--Chad Fox, who had elbow surgery last year; Mike
Cather, who was released in 1995 by the Texas Rangers
organization; and Kerry Ligtenberg, who was acquired from an
independent league team in January '96 for six dozen baseballs
and two dozen bats. Those four relievers, none of whom is older
than 27, had a combined 2.80 ERA, though their ability to get
big outs in the pressure of October's cauldron is unknown.
No team, though, is as green as Houston, Atlanta's likely
Division Series opponent. Rightfielder Derek Bell is the only
Astros regular with postseason experience, and that amounts to
three plate appearances with the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays. While
Cox has won (38) and managed (70) more playoff games than anyone
in history, Astros rookie skipper Larry Dierker, who pitched 14
seasons in the majors, never played in a postseason game.
"What's difficult is that I don't have a reference point,"
Besides his team's inexperience, Dierker's main concern is
trying to reestablish fireballer Billy Wagner as his closer.
From April through July, Wagner was 7-3 with a 1.64 ERA and 19
saves. In August and September the second-year lefty was 0-5
with an 7.71 ERA and one save through Sunday.
Florida's chances of advancing depend on the production of its
number 3 and 4 hitters, Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla,
respectively, in an offense that ranked seventh in the league in
runs. Sheffield, who was batting .249 with 20 home runs and 64
RBIs at week's end--compared with .314, 42 and 120 last
year--has been bothered by thumb, hamstring and, most recently,
back injuries. Though he has never been to the postseason,
Sheffield says, "I'm focused the most when there's pressure. If
we get to the [playoffs] and I'm playing well, I can carry us
the rest of the way."
He might want to check with Bonilla, whose 79 postseason at bats
with the Pirates and the Orioles have left him with a .190
average and low expectations. "I've always said it's usually not
your big guns that do something in the playoffs," Bonilla says.
"Pitchers are never going to give you anything you can sink your
teeth into. They're not going to let [the middle of the order]
beat them. It's usually guys like [Atlanta's light-hitting Mark]
Lemke, who's a wonderful player but not someone you'd expect to
carry a team, to come up big in the playoffs."
The American League has no obvious favorite. Though Baltimore is
virtually assured of joining the '27 Yankees and the '84 Detroit
Tigers as the only American League teams to lead wire-to-wire,
the Orioles have lost some sheen with a 10-12 September. "We're
the team to beat by title," Yankees manager Joe Torre says. "But
Baltimore is still the team to beat because they have the most
In the regular season the Orioles were 7-4 against Seattle,
their probable Division Series opponent, and dealt 18-game
winner Randy Johnson two of his four losses. But Baltimore has
struggled enough at the plate recently to give manager Davey
Johnson concern about facing Seattle's lefthanded starters
Johnson, Jeff Fassero (15-9, 3.67 ERA through Sunday) and Jamie
Moyer (17-4, 3.68). The Orioles have hit 17 points lower against
lefthanders than righthanders this season. "My priority is
getting our righthanded hitters straightened out," Davey Johnson
says. "Jerome Walton, Jeffrey Hammonds, Eric Davis and Cal
Ripken have all been banged up."
In addition, switch-hitting second baseman Roberto Alomar's left
shoulder hurts so badly that he hasn't batted righthanded since
June. Much of the responsibility against Seattle's lefthanders
falls to Davis, who returned this month from surgery and
chemotherapy for colon cancer; Geronimo Berroa, a .364 hitter
against lefties in '97; and Ripken, who at week's end was
suffering through a 12-for-76 slump.
Ripken admitted last week he has been bothered by a sore back
that was so painful he nearly walked off the field in an August
game against the Oakland Athletics. But when a Baltimore Sun
columnist suggested that Ripken junk his 2,467-game playing
streak to rest for the playoffs, Ripken asked for airtime on the
Orioles' radio and cable stations to say the idea was ludicrous.
Then in a blowout against the Milwaukee Brewers last week,
Johnson asked Ripken if he would prefer to skip his ninth-inning
at bat in favor of a pinch hitter. "No," replied Ripken. "I need
the at bat to work on my timing."
When Johnson suggested a pinch runner if he reached base, Ripken
rejected that offer, too. "He has the most mental strength of
anybody I've been around," Johnson says. "He doesn't take pain
pills or anti-inflammatory medicine for his back. He treats it
up here," he says, tapping his head.
The Orioles have a huge advantage over Seattle if their series
is decided by the bullpens. The Mariners offense, the most
prolific in baseball (5.7 runs per game average), might not be
enough to overcome the club's erratic bullpen. Even if manager
Lou Piniella can hang on to a lead with setup men Paul
Spoljaric, Bobby Ayala and Mike Timlin, he will probably try to
close games with Heathcliff Slocumb (0-4, 4.81 ERA with
Seattle). After erstwhile closer Norm Charlton blew his 10th
save last week in Texas--and the club's 26th blown save of the
season--Piniella said, "I've lost for the last time with Norm."
Both Cleveland and New York, the other probable Division Series
opponents, are much more confident when they put a game into the
hands of their bullpens. Getting there with a lead may be
difficult, though. Indians manager Mike Hargrove will probably
use three starters--righthanders Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser
and rookie Jaret Wright, who had a combined ERA of 4.28. "If we
get six strong innings, it will give us a chance, and we'll be
O.K.," says shortstop Omar Vizquel. "Pitching is everything. If
our starters give up two or three runs in the first or second
inning, it puts too much pressure on the offense."
As for the Yankees, "All I want," says Torre, "is a healthy
After missing a month with tendinitis in his right shoulder,
Cone threw five innings last Saturday against Toronto and
allowed two earned runs. Torre intends to use him in Game 1 and,
if necessary, Game 4. Though he is 32-22 in his career in
September and October, Cone's stamina and sharpness remain in
question. With Cone and lefthander Andy Pettitte (18-7, 2.86
ERA) giving him a formidable duo, Torre will have to give one
start either to Wells, lefty Kenny Rogers or righthanders Dwight
Gooden or Ramiro Mendoza. Through Sunday, Wells was 0-5 in his
last six starts and Rogers and Gooden were a combined 2-3 with a
5.96 ERA this month.
Cox, meanwhile, has no such worries about his rotation. Atlanta
ended the week on a 10-4 run during which its starters had a
2.05 ERA. Smoltz and Glavine shut down the Montreal Expos last
Friday and Saturday, respectively, allowing a total of two runs
on seven hits. To Turner's relief, the bullpen door remained as
closed as North Korea. "It's still our blessing," Smoltz says of
the depth of Atlanta's starters. "For most teams the first round
is like the World Series. We're built for the long haul."
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Chomping at the bit after a month's layoff, Cone hopes his shoulder holds up in October. [David Cone holding baseball and chewing fingernails]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Wohlers and Bonilla have sparked their teams to the playoffs, only to sputter in the postseason. [Mark Wohlers pitching]
COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN/ALLSPORT [Bobby Bonilla batting]
COLOR PHOTO: JED JACOBSOHN Piniella will have to rely on the unreliable Slocumb to close games. [Lou Piniella approaching Heathcliff Slocumb on pitcher's mound]