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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS / NATIONAL LEAGUE

Millwood Gets Third Degree

NL playoffs: After subpar season, he is asked to keep Braves alive--and find a way to stop Clark.

October 07, 2000|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — The survival of the Atlanta Braves in the National League division series with the St. Louis Cardinals--not to forget the survival of their dynastic dreams--may hinge today on the performance of Game 3 starter Kevin Millwood.

Where is John Smoltz and his 12-4 postseason record when you need him?

Millwood, the 25-year-old right-hander who was 17-8 and 18-7 in his first two seasons with the Braves, was a disappointing 10-13 this year, yielding 26 homers and 213 hits in 212 2/3 innings with an earned-run average of 4.66.

He isn't sure how that happened, but he knows what his primary task is today.

"I have to stay away from Will Clark or hope he twists an ankle or something," Millwood said, proving he is a quick learner.

Clark, joining the Cardinals from the Baltimore Orioles on July 31, had five at-bats against Millwood over the second half and delivered four hits. Three of them were home runs, and the fourth was a double. They produced four runs.

"One of those things," Clark said. "Kevin has unbelievable stuff. I've been able to put the ball in play, and a few of them have left the ballpark."

Since his acquisition as Mark McGwire's replacement, Clark has mistreated many pitchers, including Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, as the Cardinals opened with a two-game lead in the best-of-five series, but he is obviously not the only concern for Millwood.

St. Louis scored 17 runs and batted .299 in the victories over Maddux and Glavine, doing it with the slumping Fernando Tatis and the injured McGwire and Mike Matheny out of the lineup.

Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox considered bringing Maddux back on three days rest today, but "we need to win three games, and that meant starting Kevin at some point. He was outstanding in relief Sunday [against Colorado] and he's already had five days [off] and we didn't want him sitting longer. Greg will have full rest [if Game 4 is needed Sunday] and should be that much stronger."

Cox also said Millwood has pitched better than his record indicates, a victim at times of poor support or blown leads. The manager may also be banking on a little history. In Game 2 of last year's division series with the Houston Astros, after the Braves lost the opener, Millwood threw a one-hit, 5-1 complete-game victory, the first of three consecutive Atlanta wins.

Said Millwood of his performance this year: "If I knew the answer I would have had a lot better year. I think it was basically mechanical and it took me a long time to figure out. This was the first time I've gone through something like this, but I pitched better late in the season, developed a little confidence and now I feel like I can go out and win any day."

He will have to deal with Clark, however. No easy task. As Cox said: "He's phenomenal right now. I don't think I've ever seen him swing so well. I mean, you would have to go back to his early years in San Francisco. He was a player we always wanted to trade for, but he was the type player who required a lot to get him and we couldn't put it together. What he's done for St. Louis, you'd definitely have to call it one of the big acquisitions of the season."

Five teams have come back from a two-games-to-none deficit to win a five-game series. The Braves, looking to draw on any positives, have turned to putting considerable stock in their three consecutive wins after facing a 3-1 deficit in the 1996 National League championship series with the Cardinals and, as Cox reiterated Friday, that at one point this year their pitching was strong enough to help produce 15 victories in a row.

Asked about those comparisons to '96, Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa, who was at the helm that year, seemed to snarl a little Friday when he said, "the Braves can take care of their business and I guarantee the Cardinals will take care of our business. I guarantee we'll do whatever it takes to win."

He added that this group of Cardinals is strong in heart and mind and not likely to be distracted by meaningless comparisons or anything else. He delivered another shot at the Braves when he said:

"The one thing we are trying to make sure we do is use emotion as an edge, but the Braves can be irritating to play.

"They want to pitch to a wide strike zone . . . [and when they don't get it], they complain. That's irritating. We won't be irritated. We'll make enough noise so that it doesn't go just one way. We try to play our game, try to compete, and not deal with that irritation."

Against Maddux and Glavine, they did a comprehensive job of it, and a struggling Millwood faces the crucible today.

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