Braves try to regroup after loss of Nixon New pressures added to Dodgers series

September 20, 1991|By Kent Baker

When the Atlanta Braves invade Los Angeles for a crucial three-game weekend series in the National League West Division race tonight, they will be in uncharted territory. And baseball will be watching to see how they respond.

No major, everyday position player has ever been suspended for the remainder of the season during a September pennant race for failing a drug test as Braves left fielder Otis Nixon was this week.

The closest scenario occurred in 1983 when Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Steve Howe was suspended three times during the course of the team's drive to the West title, the last time on Sept. 23.

But the Dodgers were never out of first place after Aug. 29 that season and had enough quality pitching to weather the loss of Howe, who was 4-7 with a 1.44 ERA and 18 saves. And, they certainly were forewarned by his two previous suspensions.

Whether the Braves can offset Nixon's absence will depend not only on veteran Lonnie Smith and rookie Keith Mitchell, his replacements, but also on the team's reaction to the setback.

"I don't think you can blame whatever happened after it on Otis Nixon," said Jim Frey, executive vice president of the Chicago Cubs. "But I would think there will be a psychological effect.

"I think there's probably a sense of being let down. Most people don't say that because they don't want to point a finger. But not only 24 players are involved, but ownership, the whole organization, the city of Atlanta, the fans and the families of everybody connected with the team."

Losing key players in the heat of pennant races is nothing new. Injuries intruding upon contenders late in the season are common.

The most vivid instance that parallels the Braves' situation beset the Toronto Blue Jays four years ago, when both shortstop Tony Fernandez and catcher Ernie Whitt were knocked out of action within the last two weeks.

The Blue Jays ended up blowing a 3 1/2 -game lead to the Detroit Tigers.

The Braves already have shown resilience, weathering the losses of first baseman Sid Bream and right fielder David Justice for five weeks.

General manager John Schuerholz said on ESPN Wednesday night that "I'm sure initially" the situation "detracted, took everyone's attention, but that these players have proven they can play in the face of adversity and I think they will do that now. I think the team on the field has handled itself very well."

Gillick expressed confidence in Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, "who is great at this kind of stuff. He knows you almost have to XTC treat it like an injured player."

Harry Dalton, executive vice president of the Milwaukee Brewers, concurred.

"It depends on the talent and the way the manager and players go about things," Dalton said. "They can feel sorry for themselves or say 'look he's gone' and go about their business. From what I've seen this year, they will do that latter.

"A lot of it is equal to the strength of the guy going to the mound every night."

The executives feel compassion for Nixon, who was leading the majors in stolen bases with 72 and batting .297 after being above .300 most of the year, by far his best season. As a free agent, he stood to triple or even quadruple his $585,000 salary.

"In those circumstances, it was very unfortunate," said Gillick.

"You have to feel sorry for this guy at his age (32). He's struggled all his life and puts together a career year," said Frey. "The timing of it all with the newness of this [pennant fever] in Atlanta is sad."

But Frey said the Dodgers are not necessarily firm favorites now over an Atlanta team that had not had a winning season since 1983.

"The truth is nobody knows who's going to step up or what's going to happen," he said. "Young players sometimes are big contributors. We had seven rookies when we won our division."

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