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BASEBALL EXTRA | BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN

Strong Atlanta Arms Provide Push for Neagle

September 07, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN

SAN DIEGO — Killing 'em softly? Denny Neagle had done just that to the Houston Astros, and Larry Dierker, the losing manager and former major league pitcher, wasn't sure what he had seen.

"Watching Neagle from the side, you wonder how he's won 18 games," Dierker said on that recent night.

Of course, watching Neagle from the side is the best place from which to watch.

Who wants to be in the batter's box, trying to deal with an assortment of fastballs, curves, sliders and changeups coming from different arm angles?

The left-hander, who turns 29 Saturday, is 19-3 and will try to become the first National Leaguer to win 20 games when his Atlanta Braves face the San Diego Padres today.

In what has become an interesting scramble for the NL's Cy Young Award, Neagle would seem to have a slight edge over Shawn Estes, Pedro Martinez, Darryl Kile and teammate Greg Maddux.

The Braves, of course, own the award. Tom Glavine won in 1991, Maddux began an unprecedented streak of four consecutive awards in 1992 (he was with the Chicago Cubs that season before signing with Atlanta) and John Smoltz won last year.

No wonder a large chunk of Ted and Jane's annual income goes to the four members of the Atlanta rotation.

Neagle got his share last winter, signing a four-year $18-million extension that could reach $22.75 million if the Braves pick up the option on 2001.

If he was going to be paid like Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, it was time to pitch like them.

"You don't want to be low man on the totem pole," Neagle said. "You want to do just as well as they do. That alone lifted my game.

"I mean, if you can't learn from these guys, you can't learn from anybody. They're the best in the business in preparing themselves in every little thing they do . . . the consummate professionals."

They're also the backbone of a Brave team that is in a dogfight with the Florida Marlins for the NL East title, although the loser seems assured of reaching the playoffs as the league's wild card.

That and the fact that the Braves and Marlins don't meet in September seem to have stripped the race of considerable drama, but Atlanta General Manager John Schuerholz said, "theoretically, we've faced like competition. It would be more exciting for the fans if we played, but I don't think the credibility of the winning team is tainted just because we don't."

As for the wild card, Schuerholz said baseball's system strikes a balance between keeping more teams in the race while restricting the number of teams that qualify.

"Baseball can take pride in that we don't invite everybody [to the playoffs] like other leagues do," he said.

In their division domination of the '90s, the Braves' goal is always the World Series. The route isn't critical.

Neagle has been their most consistent weapon this year. His fastball doesn't blow out speed guns, but he said he has learned to get more out of it by watching his teammates use both sides of the plate, setting up hitters for off-speed stuff, particularly a changeup that is his and Glavine's and Maddux's best pitch.

Of course, it is not as if he came out of nowhere. He was 27-14 with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1995 and '96, 13 games over .500 with a team 49 games under .500 in those two years.

He was traded to the Braves last August as part of the Pittsburgh payroll purge. Better environment in which to learn. Better offense and defense as well.

The Braves have averaged 5.4 runs in his 30 starts. The result is evident in the win column, but Neagle has followed the durable Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz in another way as well. He has eaten up innings, going six or more in 26 of those 30 starts.

Intent on finishing strong, Neagle seems in the process of doing just that.

He may not have impressed Dierker, but Neagle defeated Kile, 4-2, in Houston on Aug. 28, and moved ahead of Maddux with his 19th victory Tuesday, beating Detroit, 5-0, for his fourth shutout, one behind Martinez. He still trails the Montreal ace in earned-run average, 1.78 to 2.70, but he has the best winning percentage in baseball and is third in the National League in fewest walks per nine innings.

He also has lost only once in his last 11 starts.

"I haven't been a strong finisher the last couple years," Neagle said. "I wanted to come out strong in the second half and make a point to myself and anybody else who didn't think I could do this. I think that's what I'm happiest about."

The Cy Young would make him even happier. It would earn him a $250,000 bonus, and keep the award in house.

Neagle won't talk about it, but four members of the same rotation have never won it.

"I don't think there's any question but that Denny was motivated by the environment," Schuerholz said. "The expectations are higher here than [when he was with the Pirates] and he joined a bunch of pitchers who are among the best in their profession. I think he was inspired to elevate his game and self worth to that level."

Bidding to win 20 for the first time today, Neagle will have to forsake a pregame ritual.

He is a cinema buff who almost always curls up with one of his favorite movies in the mini-theater of his Atlanta home before pitching--"The Sound of Music" being his favorite.

Neagle seems an improbable partner for Julie Andrews, but he can recite dialogue from dozens of flicks. He is also adept at imitations.

Broadcasters Skip Caray of Atlanta and Jack Buck of St. Louis are said to be two of his best. His train whistle can stop traffic. His elevator chime can turn heads.

The Braves, who have some experience in the matter, insist that Neagle also has been doing an excellent imitation of a Cy Young Award winner.

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