Publish date:

All Aces In a World Series stacked with top-drawer starters, Orlando Hernandez and the Yankees got a leg up on the Braves

No one spoke of a juiced baseball. The height of the mound
wasn't discussed. The dimensions of the ballpark seemed
absolutely fair to everyone. A sense of equilibrium returned to
baseball in the game's last days of the 20th century. What was
true in the first World Series would be just as true in the
century's last. Pitching is the brick and mortar of
championships. The greatest assemblage of starting pitchers in a
World Series in this generation would see to that.

The Atlanta Braves and the New York Yankees lined up eight
starting pitchers with the richest portfolio this side of Warren
Buffett's: 1,142 combined wins, 31 All-Star selections, 13 Cy
Young Awards (including 11 of the past 16 Cys), nine world
championship rings and three postseason MVP awards. The group
included four of the top six active pitchers in career wins and
five of the top 10 active pitchers in winning percentage
(minimum: 50 decisions). So decorated was this octet that at
least one Cy Young winner was scheduled to start every game. Just
check the blackboard for the Cy du jour. The rotations were so
stacked that only the fifth Cy versus Cy matchup in Series
history--Yankees righthander Roger Clemens versus Braves
righthander John Smoltz--was relegated to Game 4.

"The two best pitchers of my generation are here in this Series,
Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens," fellow Cy guy David Cone of New
York said on the eve of the World Series last Friday. "I'd like
to think another three or four of us here are right behind them.
It makes for a great matchup. I look at the rotations as a wash."

A wash? Heretofore in this decade no team could dare say with
such conviction that it was the pitching equal of the Braves.
Atlanta, after all, has fielded what its pitching coach, Leo
Mazzone, has said "may go down as the best rotation of all time
given the amount of offense in the game today."

It was obvious after two games that Cone was wrong. This was no
wash. The Yankees held the clear edge in starting pitching.
Righthanded slingers Cone and Orlando Hernandez had outpitched
Braves righties Maddux and Kevin Millwood at Turner Field with
Dead Ball era dominance. They could have pitched against Atlanta
at Turner Studios without damage to the set. Only nine of the 49
batters to face Hernandez and Cone hit the ball beyond the arc of
the infield. Incredibly, Atlanta got all of one hit in 21 at bats
on each night against the New York starters while scoring a total
of one run against the two of them.

After losing 4-1 and 7-2, the Braves had to admit that they'd met
their match. Maddux, when asked following Game 2 if the Yankees'
rotation was as good as Atlanta's, responded without hesitation,
"Oh, yes. Absolutely. Their starting pitching gets overlooked.
And they've got a bullpen that can match up with anyone's. I saw
on TV where they're 33-10 under [manager] Joe Torre [during four
years] in the postseason. Thirty-three and 10! That's impressive,
man. That's pitching."

New York was riding one of the greatest postseason rolls ever.
Only Babe Ruth's Yankees of 1927, '28 and '32, who won 12
consecutive World Series games, rang up a longer winning streak
in the Fall Classic than the 10 straight these Yankees had
through Game 2. Unlike their Murderers' Row forefathers, however,
this New York team had wiped out the best available competition
more by arm than by bat.

The Yankees' rotation is too good to overlook anymore. Through
Sunday, in 23 postseason games over the past two years, Cone (six
starts), Hernandez (six), lefthander Andy Pettitte (five),
Clemens (two) and the departed (to the Toronto Blue Jays) lefty
David Wells (four) were a combined 18-2 with a 2.31 ERA. They'd
pitched at least seven innings in 18 of those 23 games and
allowed two or fewer earned runs in 18 as well.

Much of baseball is unrecognizable from its early-20th-century
roots. In 1912 people gaped upon the newly built 25-foot-high
leftfield wall of Fenway Park as if it were the moon, wondering
if man could ever clear it. Now home run balls routinely smash
against dome catwalks, splash into swimming pools, shatter
scoreboards and practically orbit around a Fenway made smaller
and smaller. This World Series is a sepia-toned reminder of what
hasn't changed. Ninety-six years after the Boston Pilgrims and
the Pittsburgh Pirates combined for a mere 13 runs on 30 hits in
the opening two games of the first World Series, the Yankees and
the Braves scored 14 runs on 27 hits in the first two games of
the century's last. The dead-ball guys hit three home runs, the
rabbit-ball guys one, by Atlanta's Chipper Jones off Hernandez.

The first Series began with Cy Young himself throwing the first
pitch. The century's last began with four-time Cy Young winner
Maddux doing the chucking--not including that done by the Braves'
would-be Game 1 starter, lefty Tom Glavine, who did his hurling
at home because of a stomach flu. Glavine was rescheduled to
pitch against Pettitte on Tuesday, when the Series moved to
Yankee Stadium for Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5.

Maddux's start was like so many by Atlanta's illustrious starters
in this decade's postseasons: He pitched well, but not better
than his opponent and not well enough to overcome meager run
support. (Through Sunday, Braves starters were 7-6 over the last
two postseasons.) Maddux took a 1-0 lead into the eighth inning
but failed to get another out. He gave up a first-pitch single to
Scott Brosius. Torre, electing not to bunt, lifted Hernandez for
pinch hitter Darryl Strawberry. With three lefthanders in the
Atlanta bullpen, Torre knew this was his only chance to get the
lefthanded-hitting Strawberry an at bat against a righthander.
"Brilliant," Cone called the move. Maddux, respectful of
Strawberry's power with a 15-mph wind blowing to rightfield,
issued a five-pitch walk.

"We still felt it was a 1-0 game we could win," Mazzone said
afterward. "They bunt, we walk [Derek] Jeter, and then we have
[lefty reliever John] Rocker to face [lefthanded hitter Paul]
O'Neill. We can play the infield back for a double play."

Chuck Knoblauch fouled off the next pitch on a bunt attempt.
"When I fouled it off, I saw Maddux jump really quickly off the
mound toward third base," Knoblauch said afterward. "I couldn't
believe it. He was really aggressive, breaking toward third like
that. So on the next pitch I actually was trying to bunt the ball
straight back through the mound."

Knoblauch bunted hard just to the right of the mound, far from
Maddux and nearly past charging first baseman Brian Hunter.
Hunter fielded the ball but then dropped it for an error as he
tried to throw to first. "Bases loaded and no outs is a lot worse
than bases loaded and one out," Mazzone said.

Maddux worked Jeter to 0 and 2 but could not put him away. He
missed away with one pitch and left the next one up and over the
center of the plate. Jeter smashed it into leftfield for a
game-tying single. Then O'Neill, batting against Rocker, rapped a
97-mph high-and-tight fastball through a drawn-in infield for a
two-run single.

That hit made a winner out of Hernandez. Nothing new there. El
Duque is 34-13, including 5-0 with a 1.02 ERA in the postseason,
since leaving Cuba and getting a four-year, $6.6 million deal
from the Yankees in 1998. The Braves were one of many clubs that
decided Hernandez wasn't worth that kind of money, not when they
couldn't verify his age (he claims 30 but might be as old as 34)
or the pop on his fastball. All the while they should have been
measuring his ticker. "In his mind he's the equal to Maddux or
anybody," Cone says. "This is his chance to prove it. You can
tell this is his time right now, and he wants to take advantage
of it."

On July 16, in a 10-7 Atlanta win, the Braves had plastered
Hernandez for six runs in 4 2/3 innings. At the time he was having
undisclosed personal problems. "He wasn't focused," New York
pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says. "I think they lulled
themselves into thinking they were going to see the same El Duque
they saw then. I think they were surprised by what they got."

In Game 1, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox started six righthanded
hitters (including Maddux) against Hernandez, who held righties
to a .187 average this year. El Duque dominated the Braves with
his sampler box of breaking balls, a variety pack of surprises.
Atlanta looked at breaking balls that looped into the strike zone
and swung at others that slid sharply out if it. Righthanded
batters swung 35 times at the assortment of pitches, missing 13,
fouling off 16 and putting only six into play, all for outs (two
on the ground, four in the air). "I noticed, and I'll do the same
tomorrow," Cone said after Game 1. "They seem to be vulnerable to
breaking balls, and you can get them to chase out of the zone."

Against Cone's similar sidewinding style, however, Cox inserted
into the Atlanta lineup three experienced, if lesser used,
lefthanded hitters who had combined for seven home runs all
season: Ozzie Guillen, Keith Lockhart and Greg Myers.

"He caught me off guard a little bit with the lefthanders," said
Cone afterward. His Cy Young Award is the only one of the 13 in
this Series not hanging in its owner's residence; Cone gave his
to his father, who displays it in his Kansas City house. "Then I
considered all the lefties to be better fastball hitters, anyway,
so I stayed with the breaking stuff. It didn't change my approach
much. I didn't give in at all. I sensed that in the middle
innings they began to get frustrated and were swinging at pitches
out of the zone."

Myers did contribute the only hit off Cone, a fifth-inning single
after which he was immediately eradicated by a double play. By
then, the Braves trailed 7-0 and their starter, Millwood, who has
the best winning percentage (.690) among active pitchers with at
least 50 decisions, had long been driven from the game. Ten of
the 15 batters he faced reached base, and five of them scored.
The Yankees, contrarians to the slugfest mentality of these
times, hadn't bothered to hit a home run in half the games of
their 10-game World Series winning streak. They preferred to use
singles, bunts and walks like arsenic. They were on the doorstep
of having their third world championship team in four years
without a 30-home-run hitter. "My pitches were either right down
the middle or way out of the zone," Millwood said afterward. "You
can't do that against these guys."

It wasn't the sort of flameout you expected from any of the Big
Eight starters in this Series. Through Game 2 (chart, page 43)
they had started more than half of all the postseason games since
1991 (113 of 212) and earned one quarter of all the victories in
that time (53).

Such superb starting pitching gave the century-closing Series a
fittingly retro look, recalling the 1963 Fall Classic, when
future Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale (for the Los
Angeles Dodgers) and Whitey Ford (Yankees) converged, or the
five-game '05 Series, when the Cooperstown-bound Christy
Mathewson and Joe McGinnity (New York Giants) and Chief Bender
and Eddie Plank (Philadelphia Athletics) accounted for nine of
the 10 starting assignments and every game ended in a shutout.

This Series did more than wink and nod at the past. It fairly
welled up with tears, especially during one particularly touching
moment when the 18 living members of the All-Century team were
introduced before Game 2. Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr. and Willie
Mays delicately assisted 81-year-old Ted Williams into a chair
upon a stage erected at second base. Williams in his winter has
acquired an endearing patina, the fierce Teddy Ballgame having
become a sweet Grandfather Baseball. The entwinement of three
generations and 2,334 home runs captured in wordless eloquence
the greater part of a century of baseball.

There was, too, a less poignant moment that better caught the
spirit of this World Series. The first set of All-Century players
to be introduced were starting pitchers Clemens, Koufax, Bob
Gibson, Nolan Ryan and Warren Spahn, a five-man rotation spanning
every baseball season since 1946. They stood there erect and
silent in coats and ties, like a tribunal of elders satisfied by
how the century was closing. Cone and Millwood were throwing in
the bullpens. Baseball never seemed more timeless.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Righty-oh! Bret Boone and other righthanded batters got nada off El Duque.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER (2) What's the difference? Atlanta's Maddux looked as good as Cone but didn't get as much run support.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (2) "In his mind he's the equal of Maddux or anybody," Cone says of Hernandez.

Post Masters

Through Sunday's Game 2, the eight scheduled starters in the 1999
World Series had started more than half of all postseason games
played since '91 (113 of 212). Moreover, they had accounted for
one quarter (53) of all postseason victories in that span. Here's
how the elite eight have fared in those nine postseasons, ranked
by number of starts. (Each pitcher has appeared only for his
current team except David Cone, who made four postseason starts
for the Toronto Blue Jays in '92, and Roger Clemens, who made one
for the Boston Red Sox in '95.)


John Smoltz, Braves 25 174.2 12-3 2.73
Tom Glavine, Braves 25 164.1 10-11 2.79
Greg Maddux, Braves 21 150.2 10-9 2.40
David Cone, Yankees 16 98 7-2 3.77
Andy Pettitte, Yankees 13 84.1 6-4 4.38
Orlando Hernandez, Yankees 6 44 5-0 1.02
Kevin Millwood, Braves 4 24.2 2-1 3.65
Roger Clemens, Yankees 3 16 1-1 4.50