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Braves Aren't Pitching In

After its makeover, Atlanta's once-stellar staff is anything but; however, hot bats have led team to National League's best record.

June 08, 2003|Paul Newberry | Associated Press

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves have dominated the arms race like no other team.

From Cy Youngs (they've won the award six times) to save records (John Smoltz set a National League mark with 55 last season), this organization has always started its pursuit of a championship at the mound.

Not this year.

Two months into the season, the Braves look very ordinary in the pitching department, a concept that seems about as plausible as the New York Yankees trading in their pinstripes for teal-colored uniforms.

After all, Atlanta has turned the ERA championship into its own private party, leading the NL nine of the last 11 years in that ultimate standard of pitching excellence. The other two seasons, the Braves were a close second.

They've got some catching-up to do in 2003. Heading into a weekend series against Pittsburgh, the Braves were 10th in the league -- smelling salts, anyone? -- with a 4.16 ERA.

"We're 10th?" catcher Javy Lopez said incredulously. "Well, I really don't care. As long as we're in first place, that's all that matters."

Indeed, this changing of the pitching guard hasn't affected the standings. The Braves have the best record in the league and a commanding lead in the NL East, giving every indication that their astounding streak of division titles will grow to 12.

In a fortuitous bit of timing, the Atlanta hitters have climbed to the top of the offensive charts, more than compensating for a staff that has slid in the opposite direction.

"We've won a lot of division titles with pitching, defense and an adequate offense," General Manager John Schuerholz said. "But in the postseason, our offense has not matched up to a lot of other good teams. We feel this one will."

And the pitching? Schuerholz prefers to focus on the positive numbers, such as a .249 average for opposing hitters (fourth in the NL). He doesn't plan any major shake-ups, expressing confidence that the current group of arms will be among the league leaders by season's end.

"It's a different mix this year, but I'm not going to say our pitching is not good," the GM said. "Once they all get in the groove and we get them all healthy, I feel this will be a very good pitching staff."

The Braves were certainly ripe for a fall after going through a traumatic overhaul during the off-season. The 12-man staff includes only four holdovers from 2002, while the exodus claimed such familiar faces as Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood.

Glavine, an 18-game winner last season, was lost in free agency, as were key relievers Mike Remlinger and Chris Hammond. Millwood, who also had 18 wins, was dealt to Philadelphia in a one-sided, salary slashing move. Kerry Ligtenberg was let go. Damian Moss and Tim Spooneybarger were traded for more-experienced pitchers.

"There's been a lot of changes," said Smoltz, one of the few guys who did return. "We left spring training with a whole new staff. It's not easy to do that. I think it will turn around when we get things in order. Maybe not, but that's what we're striving for."

The only holdover in the rotation is Greg Maddux, but he's not the same pitcher who won four consecutive Cy Young awards in the 1990s. He's not even the same pitcher as a year ago, when he went 16-6 with a 2.62 ERA.

After signing the largest one-year contract in baseball history ($14.75 million), Maddux lost his first three starts and came into June with an ERA near 5.00.

He has pitched better in his last three starts (three runs in 20 innings), but no one seems more affected by baseball's push to homogenize the strike zone.

Maddux has always relied on pinpoint control to be effective. In the past, he got most of his strikes by staying on the black of the plate -- and then some. These days, umpires aren't likely to give him the benefit of the doubt, knowing they must pass muster with a new computerized grading system.

"God knows, he's faced a lot of questions this year that he's never had to face before," Smoltz said. "But he's a professional. He'll figure it out and get on the roll that everyone expects."

Among the newcomers to the rotation, Russ Ortiz (7-3, 3.83 ERA) has pitched well, but Mike Hampton has been slowed by nagging injuries and Paul Byrd hasn't pitched at all because of elbow surgery. He hopes to return in July.

While Smoltz is on pace for another save record, the bullpen also raises plenty of concerns. Roberto Hernandez, who's supposed to pass the baton to the closer after the eighth inning, has struggled with his control, given up some big homers and went into the weekend with an ERA approaching 5.00. Kevin Gryboski and Darren Holmes have struggled. Ray King has more walks than strikeouts.

A saving grace has been the work of rookies Jung Bong and Trey Hodges. Bong won his first five decisions, giving him as many wins as Maddux, while Hodges had an ERA below 2.00.

Pitching coach Leo Mazzone scoffed as the skeptics, pointing out that his bullpen had a cumulative record of 18-5.

"The last I checked, our bullpen record was way over .500. Way over," he said. "That's what we're concerned with, not ERA. I think [the bullpen] is as good as any we've had so far."

As for ERA, it's not like all those No. 1 rankings did the Braves much good in the postseason. Eleven straight division titles have translated into only one World Series championship.

"We've won ERA titles, we've had Cy Young awards, we've had all that stuff," Mazzone said. "I just want to win. I don't care how."

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