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Inside Baseball | AROUND THE HORN / ROSS NEWHAN

This Battery Rarely Starts for Braves

September 21, 2003|ROSS NEWHAN

Now that closer John Smoltz, on the disabled list since Aug. 24 because of elbow tendinitis, has returned to a bullpen that desperately needs him, the Atlanta Braves can turn to more important playoff issues -- such as who catches Greg Maddux.

Actually, it's not an issue at all.

With Javy Lopez having an MVP-caliber year offensively, Manager Bobby Cox concedes "it will be difficult keeping him out of the lineup."

As a major weapon in the now-prolific Atlanta attack, Lopez is hitting .330, having driven in 104 runs and slugged 42 homers in only 431 at-bats.

His ratio of one homer every 10.5 at-bats was second in the majors only to Barry Bonds' 8.6, and with 41 of his 42 having been hit as a catcher, Lopez has tied Todd Hundley's 1996 record of 41 by a catcher. He is also about to join Roy Campanella and Mike Piazza as the only catchers with a .300-40-100 season.

Until Tuesday, however, when a Smoltz-less bullpen failed to protect what would have been his 15th victory in a record 16th consecutive season for Maddux, Lopez had not caught the four-time Cy Young Award winner in a regular-season game since Sept. 8, 1998.

It is not unusual for a pitcher to develop a comfort level with a certain catcher, but it is somewhat unusual that Maddux seems to have preferred anyone except Lopez -- throwing regularly to Charlie O'Brien, Eddie Perez and Henry Blanco in the years that Lopez has otherwise been Atlanta's No. 1 receiver.

"I think there's a couple reasons," a person familiar with the situation said. "Greg is such a stylist that he prefers having a high-end catcher available for a couple days before he pitches to work on preparation. Rhythm and flow are important to him, and there were times he felt Lopez had trouble following his patterns.

"Also, Greg has a slow delivery to the plate, and Lopez isn't a great thrower. I think [Cox] felt it would be better for the club to use a catcher who was more adept at protecting against the opposition's running game when Maddux pitches."

Maddux makes his third try for his 15th win against Florida today, with Lopez likely to be the catcher as they restore familiarity in preparation for the playoffs.

The right-hander has a 2-1 record in three postseason starts with Lopez as his catcher -- none since Game 6 of the 1996 World Series. He also won his Cy Young that year with the then-rookie Lopez as his primary catcher.

"It's never been anything personal," Maddux said in Atlanta.

Right.

Protection

Edgardo Alfonzo looked like a four-year, $26-million mistake by the San Francisco Giants through his first 71 games, batting .216 with five homers and 27 RBIs, but he has since regained his best form while learning to cope with the pressure of hitting behind Bonds.

"I'm just more comfortable now," Alfonzo said in Los Angeles. "I was trying to do too much earlier. I had a new contract with a new team. Then I had a new role batting behind Barry. It was a big adjustment in a lot of ways, and I just wasn't as patient as I am now. I figured I had to get a hit every time Barry was walked ahead of me."

Alfonzo went into the Dodger series having hit .308 with 42 RBIs and 25 walks in his last 64 games, raising his average 41 points. He was the fourth toughest in the National League to strike out and was batting .345 with runners in scoring position in the second half.

"The idea of a pitcher walking someone to get to him was new in the beginning," Manager Felipe Alou said. "Sometimes before, he would be the one getting walked. Now he's made the adjustment mentally. He doesn't care if they walk Barry. Now he knows it's impossible to get a hit every time."

Overdrawn

Jerry Colangelo, managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, has long said that the bills would come due for the $175 million that the club owes in deferred salaries, an arrangement that helped the team win a World Series and the last two division titles while making an out-of-the-box expansion impact in the Phoenix area.

Now? Well, the postman doesn't have to ring twice. The bills have come due.

The payroll is expected to be cut from $94 million to $80 million next year, and to $55 million the year after.

The emphasis will be on young players, building from within. How Colangelo expects to make payroll reductions of that magnitude isn't clear, but with his contract expiring after the 2004 season, Curt Schilling could be the first to go, possibly headed back to Philadelphia after the season ends.

In Los Angeles last week, Randy Johnson, working with a new contract extension, said of the Diamondbacks' new direction: "I still want to win, and I don't think Jerry is saying that he's willing to settle for mediocrity. I'll say something if it ever gets to that point, but from what I've seen, the young players in this organization can do the job. There's no reason we can't go that route and still win."

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