DENVER — The glow of the Colorado Rockies' accomplishment now confronts the hard reality of Greg Maddux and the Atlanta Braves taking off on their usual October mission.
Detoured by the strike last year, the Braves resume pursuit tonight of the only prize that has eluded them in the '90s--a World Series championship.
"We've won more games than any team in baseball the last five years, but I don't think the players have received the credit they deserve because we haven't won the World Series," General Manager John Schuerholz said.
"They've been too good not to get that credit, but the way human nature is, people tend to focus on that singular prize. In my mind, winning the World Series would be a validation."
And anything short of that would be failure?
"Well, I don't know if you could call it failure," Schuerholz said. "I don't think you can term the season a failure when you've won something.
"It's true that the organization's focus has been on winning the World Series. I mean, it's governed everything we've done from Day 1, and it would be a disappointment if we don't win it.
"But I don't think you could call it a failure, considering everything the team has accomplished."
The Braves were 90-54 in routing the National League East this year. They are 454-290 in the last five years, but lost to Minnesota in the 1991 World Series, to Toronto in the 1992 World Series and to Philadelphia in the 1993 league championship series.
Creation of the wild-card system, of course, now translates to another impediment, one more October series for the Braves to overcome in reaching and winning the World Series.
"As I said when it was first adopted, baseball needs to invigorate fan interest and I think we needed to try this," Schuerholz said of the wild card. "Sure, it's one more level of challenge we have to deal with, but theoretically, good teams ought to be able to deal with those challenges.
"The flaw is the five games. To have any validity as a postseason playoff it should be seven. Baseball should have learned its lesson from playing five-game series for the league championship. The challenge would be compacting the regular season so that we could play three seven-game series before Thanksgiving."
In the Coors Field opener of the division series that pits Atlanta's league-best pitching against Colorado's league-best hitting, the incomparable Maddux (19-2) faces Kevin Ritz (11-11). Maddux is 18-0 in his last 20 road starts, but has never pitched at Coors Field, where the Rockies averaged 6.7 runs a game. He was 4-0 in Colorado's first two years but was dealt one of his two 1995 defeats by the Rockies in Atlanta on May 17, 6-5.
"They've got quite a lineup," Maddux said of the Rockies. "They hit me hard that one time, but luckily for baseball, good pitching stops good hitting. If I do my job, I'll be OK."
Said catcher Charlie O'Brien, "Greg is the perfect guy for this situation. He's a slider, sinkerball pitcher, and if he keeps it on the ground here, he's going to win."
The Rockies have a three-year record of 6-30 against the Braves, 3-16 here. However, they won two of three from Atlanta here in early September, with left-hander Lance Painter beating the Braves, 12-2, in his only start of the year.
Colorado Manager Don Baylor has nominated Painter to start Game 2 against Tom Glavine and the lefty-dominated Atlanta batting order, with Bill Swift opposing John Smoltz in Game 3 Friday night in Atlanta.
Of tonight's duel with Maddux, Dante Bichette said, "You have to beat the best if you want to be the best. If we can beat baseball's best pitcher in the first game . . . anything can happen."
Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox was talking about just that Monday. Asked if winning the World Series is a crusade, Cox said, "We want to get there and win it, but we're not going to commit suicide if it doesn't work out. As I've said many times, Pittsburgh could have been in those World Series just as easily as us, but we got the breaks [in the 1991 and '92 playoffs]. At some point, you've got to get the breaks."