This was supposed to be last call for the Atlanta Braves, the
year the lights went out in Georgia. The Braves lost more often
at home than they won in 2001, had to replace three of four
starting infielders because of injuries or ineffectiveness, cast
their lot with a Jurassic first baseman rescued from the Mexican
League and sent out a light-hitting playoff lineup that included
guys named Franco and Bako, who could be mistaken for lost Marx
Brothers. Maybe the winners of 10 consecutive National League
East titles nonetheless swept their way to the League
Championship Series solely because of the greatness encoded in
their memories and the usual befuddling postseason play of the
Houston Astros. However, something more, something new also
seemed to be at work. If this wasn't last call for a powerhouse,
it was because righthander John Smoltz was handling matters at
Smoltz, the winningest postseason starter in history, appears to
have become a dominant postseason closer. His attainment of this
lofty status climaxes a dazzling conversion that has steeled the
Atlanta bullpen. Smoltz always had an unparalleled sense of the
moment--his career 12-4 record and 2.60 earned run average as a
playoff starter is testament to that--but now the moments are
louder, more compressed, more dramatic. He peers over the
precipice and appreciates the view, even if he hasn't adopted
the traditional closer's swagger. "I go out with the idea that I
have a good chance of giving up the lead," Smoltz says. "This
job has a lot of humility built in."
To the Astros he gave up nothing more damaging than a solo home
run by Vinny Castilla in the ninth inning of Game 1 with the
Braves ahead by four. All told, Smoltz worked four superb
innings in the three games, picking up two saves and getting the
on-field handshakes that are the perks of his new job. Instead
of the familiar menu of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and Smoltz,
the reconfigured Braves serve up Maddux and Glavine with Smoltz.
One or two innings from Smoltz four times a week could prove
more compelling than seven innings every fifth day.
For a luxury rotation that often has had to make do with a
discount closer, Smoltz, barely 19 months after undergoing Tommy
John elbow surgery, has been a revelation since his first save,
on Aug. 17. Through the Astros series he had converted 12 of 13
save opportunities, hadn't allowed an inherited runner to score
and had held the first hitters he faced to a .118 batting
average. Those numbers are especially welcome in Atlanta, city
of the nervous ninth. Since 1991 the Braves have used Alejandro
Pena, an aging Jeff Reardon, Mike Stanton, Greg McMichael, Mark
Wohlers, Kerry Ligtenberg and John Rocker as closers in the
postseason, which isn't exactly a rogues' gallery but is in
sharp contrast to the splendid array Atlanta has had at the top
of its rotation.
"The one thing that is a pleasure to see is a closer with good
control," says Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone in a thinly
veiled allusion to Rocker, the clenched-fist Cleveland Indians
lefty who was Atlanta's bullpen ace until being traded on June
22. "Smoltz is coming in firing bullets, a nasty slider, a nasty
split, but with control. I think [his having been] a starting
pitcher helps with the control if you're going to close."
Smoltz, who through last Friday's division series clincher had
walked five in 38 innings as a reliever, brings a broad palette
of pitches to a job that usually requires only two: a
90-mph-plus fastball and some other out pitch. In the ninth
inning of Game 2, while protecting Glavine's one-run lead,
Smoltz used a splitter to get Houston leftfielder Lance Berkman
to rap into a double play that was started and finished by the
fortysomething Julio Franco, the Mexican League trouper whose
best position at this stage of his career is the batter's box.
Smoltz then battled Moises Alou, the third-leading hitter in the
National League, to a 3-and-2 count before inducing him to pop
up to end the only 1-0 game in the two-year history of Enron
"That was a hanging slider, and I should have killed that
pitch," Alou said. "But when a guy throws 98 and has the other
stuff that Smoltz has, he's going to keep you a little off
balance. He was nasty enough when he was a starter, but now he
knows he's got only one inning and can give it all he's got. New
ligament in his elbow. New pitcher."
Smoltz had the surgery in March 2000. He returned to action 14
months later but faltered as a member of the rotation. The
Braves won three of his five starts, but Smoltz pitched only 25
innings. His elbow could not handle the strain. He returned to
the disabled list on June 10, which could prove to be the
demarcation line for a productive new phase in an already rich
Atlanta certainly needed a one-inning wonder. Twelve days after
Smoltz went on the disabled list, Rocker was exiled to Cleveland
for righthander Steve Karsay, who had saved 20 games in 2000,
and righthanded specialist Steve Reed. Karsay saved games in
five of his first seven opportunities for Atlanta, but he looked
more like an intriguing hard thrower than a polished
ninth-inning rock for a playoff team. Reed and Karsay did,
however, change the dynamics of the relief corps, giving manager
Bobby Cox newfound flexibility and confidence.
Against the Astros, Cox perfectly massaged his rebuilt bullpen
in Game 3, a 6-2 clinching win. After starter John Burkett had
given back half the 4-0 lead provided primarily by unheralded
catcher Paul Bako, who had hit a two-run homer and executed a
suicide squeeze, Cox used Reed to retire Craig Biggio on a
grounder for the second out of the seventh. Cox then summoned
lefthander Mike Remlinger to force switch-hitter Jose Vizcaino
to bat from his weaker right side; Vizcaino flied out to
rightfield. Karsay pitched a perfect eighth, and Smoltz tidied
up in the ninth with eight pitches, striking out two batters
while hitting 99 mph.
If the Braves' starting pitching isn't quite what it used to be,
it's as stubborn as ever. Atlanta pitchers still refuse to
capitulate, tiptoeing around game-breakers like Houston slugger
Jeff Bagwell--he reached base in eight of his 12 division series
plate appearances, on three singles and five walks--and working
counts in all situations. Glavine, for example, got himself in
trouble in the fifth inning of Game 2 when he gave up singles
that put runners on first and third with one out. With Biggio on
deck, Glavine fell behind 3-and-0 to pinch hitter Chris Truby,
rallied with two fastballs for strikes and then threw a wicked,
full-count changeup at which Truby flailed. "To be successful
you have to throw something other than a fastball in a so-called
cripple count," Glavine says. "Our guys do that, whether it's me
with a changeup, Maddux with a change and cutter or Burkett with
a change and curve. Then it's only a question of executing your
Smoltz says his closing is still a work in progress, a situation
that parallels his contract negotiations. He will be a free
agent after the season, and the Braves want him back as a
stopper. General manager John Schuerholz envisions Smoltz as a
latter-day Dennis Eckersley, who won 149 games as a starter
before he turned into an all-but-automatic closer in 1987 at age
32. Smoltz has 160 wins and doesn't turn 35 until next May. He
has several years left to give 'em Eck but has been noncommittal
about taking on the job for the rest of his career.
For the moment Smoltz isn't worried about where or how or even
for how much he'll pitch. He's simply glad he can. "There were
times this year I thought I'd quit," Smoltz says. "A ton of
people are going crazy over what I'm doing, but I have to
caution myself because of the struggles I had. Still, I do enjoy
the role. When you come into the game, you can make it or break
it. The ninth inning, no one gives away an at bat. Everyone
grinds as hard as he can."
The grind is now daily, and Smoltz is lights out at closing
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Bako bits The Braves' catcher contributed a two-run homer and this squeeze to the Game 3 win that capped the sweep of Houston.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Sweet relief Smoltz brings variety and control to the closer's role.
THE SCOUT'S VIEW
.262, 9 HRs, 31 RBIs
Has good plate coverage and some home run power. Not as bad
defensively as people make him out to be.
.300, 3 HRs, 11 RBIs
Bat isn't as quick as it used to be. Pitch him under the hands.
Still can pop an occasional homer.
.330, 38 HRs, 102 RBIs
Scariest guy in lineup. Can get the big hit even if not swinging
well. Why throw him a strike?
.295, 25 HRs, 97 RBIs
Threatening hitter because he rises to the occasion. Excellent
.271, 10 HRs, 58 RBIs
His swing has slowed, but he's a veteran who grinds out at bats.
.251, 34 HRs, 104 RBIs
Dangerous if he's seeing the ball well; if he's not, he can be
an easy out. Best centerfielder alive.
.281, 0 HRs, 37 RBIs
Free swinger likes the ball up. Offensively has lots of holes.
They'll pinch-hit for him. Adequate defensively.
.212, 2 HRs, 15 RBIs
Probably better offensively than defensively. Can be run on,
especially with Maddux pitching.
3B Ken Caminiti still hits a home run once in a while, but he
has a stiff body and stiff swing. Good fastballs get him out.
The guy I like off the bench is 2B Keith Lockhart. He makes
contact consistently and uses the whole field. Hits good
pitching. I think SS Mark DeRosa is better than Sanchez. He
makes better contact, catches it better and is a better athlete.
Greg Maddux, RHP (17-11, 3.05 ERA) Still expert at changing
speeds and throwing strikes. You can steal on him. Has been
beaten in the postseason. I don't know why.
Tom Glavine, LHP (16-7, 3.57 ERA) One of the guttiest guys in
the game. He's like the cartoon characters who stop at the edge
of a cliff--a few pebbles go over the side, but he doesn't.
Doesn't give in to hitters.
John Burkett, RHP (12-12, 3.04 ERA) Turned his career around
this season. Now looks like another Maddux. Sinks the ball and
changes speed on all pitches. Gives Braves a chance to win
almost every time out.
Kevin Millwood, RHP (7-7, 4.31 ERA) Scares me because of his
propensity for giving up the big inning. Stuff is good enough,
though he has lost velocity. Ability to make pitches
consistently is a question.
RHP John Smoltz, the closer, has explosive stuff he can throw
anywhere he wants. When he gets the ball in the ninth inning,
the game's over. RHP Steve Reed gets righthanded hitters out
with a sweeping slider, making for a very different look before
Smoltz comes in. LHP Mike Remlinger has good velocity and comes
right after you. He gets out righthanders as well as
lefthanders. RHP Steve Karsay's stuff is good enough to get
people out, but he gives up home runs. Is it his inability to
make a pitch? It's not his stuff.
HOW TO BEAT THEM
You can't blow the Braves out, and you can't let them get to
Smoltz or you're done. You must play little ball, including
stealing bases. Your starting pitching has to be good. You can't
let Chipper Jones or Jordan beat you with home runs. Two or
three runs might be enough to beat Atlanta.
"Smoltz was nasty enough when he was a starter," Alou said of
the Braves' closer, "but now he knows he's got only one inning
and can give it all he's got."
If this season isn't last call for the Braves powerhouse, it's
because John Smoltz is handling matters at closing time.