Smoltz's reversal drives Braves Visit to psychologist spurs 2nd-half wins

October 12, 1991|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Correspondent

ATLANTA -- At the All-Star break this season, the Atlanta Braves were 9 1/2 games behind the pacesetting Los Angeles Dodgers and seemingly headed for their usual lowly finish in the National League West.

Pitcher John Smoltz had a 2-11 record, a 5.16 ERA and little confidence.

No rivals in the division seemed concerned about the tomahawk chop, the tom-toms or the Braves' national following, which was girding itself for another disappointing season.

But the destinies of the Braves and Smoltz began to change dramatically, and it was only fitting that he was on the mound Oct. 5 when the team clinched its first division title since 1982.

"The low point was the last game I started before the All-Star Game against the Dodgers. I didn't get through the second inning," said Smoltz.

At the break, Smoltz decided it was time to act. He sought the lTC help of psychologist Jack Llewellyn. Bingo. Smoltz became Mr. Hyde to opponents. He was 12-2 with a 2.62 ERA the second half and a major factor in the Braves' stirring drive to overtake the Dodgers.

Smoltz will be brimming with positive thoughts today when the National League Championship Series resumes at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with 20-game winner John Smiley pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Llewellyn will be seated behind the plate in the capacity crowd, watching Smoltz try to give the Braves the advantage for the first time in the series, tied at 1-1 after teammate Steve Avery stifled the Pirates in a 1-0 victory Thursday night.

"I told myself I'd done everything to get us 9 1/2 games back, so I had to be the one to get us turned around again," said Smoltz, acquired from Detroit in 1987 for Doyle Alexander, who went unbeaten through the winning stretch run for the Tigers that year. "I was determined to help pick up everybody else."

Smoltz said his inability to control his emotions in the first half was ruining him.

"It was like I had a cupful of emotions," he said. "Every time there was an error or a bad pitch, I'd let everything spill out. Inside, it was tearing me up. I'm no dummy. I know I'm a major part of this team. But I don't plan on ever going through anything like that again."

The psychologist "gave me a chance to record and make adjustments, not to my mechanics, but my mental state on the mound," and manager Bobby Cox showed infinite patience with the right-hander, an All-Star at 22 two years ago.

Now, Smoltz is preparing to offer his best shot against the Pirates, who combed him for 12 earned runs and eight walks in 19 innings this season, despite his 2-1 record.

He never has lost to Pittsburgh (6-0) at home and vows "the only thing going for me is they haven't seen me at my best this year."

If Smoltz can do anything near what Avery did while shutting down Pittsburgh, the series will have turned around. The pressure has shifted to the Pirates, who can be eliminated without returning home and are winless in Atlanta this season.

Pittsburgh's pitching rotation is questionable because of the uncertain status of injured Game 1 starter Doug Drabek, and Barry Bonds has yet to drive in a run. The heat is on Smiley to pitch a game like Drabek (5-1 winner) or Zane Smith (1-0 loser).

Manager Jim Leyland chose Smiley to pitch in Atlanta because he felt the afternoon shadows that follow the start of the 3:05 p.m. game favored Smiley's pitching style.

Smiley said "the shadows will make it a tough battle" for hitters. "I think the pitchers will probably have an advantage."

But the stadium is known as the "Launching Pad" because the ball carries well. And the Braves' hitting is overdue after getting only two extra-base hits, including Mark Lemke's game-winning, bad-hop double on Thursday in Game 2.

"If a fastball pitcher like myself and John aren't throwing as fast, it can hurt us," said Smiley. "We have to try to battle through it. I'll have to mix more curves in. But if we're tired, the best we can do is our best and leave it up to the relievers."

Smiley is hot, finishing the season with a seven-game winning streak.

But the Braves' hitters are not the only ones who will be chopping away. The Atlanta fans will be flailing their tomahawks, a war party in red, white and blue.

Pittsburgh had the best road record in the league (46-32) despite its misfortune at Atlanta, but Smiley had no explanation.

"I don't know why that is," he said. "Because we keep our wives at home?" Smiley is a bachelor.

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