Hungrier Braves get nod here, as do weary late-night viewers

October 16, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Before getting down to business, let's just say it's high time baseball started its postseason night games earlier, so that the climactic moments in the game's showcase events don't always occur around midnight EDT.

No way the average school kid stayed up to catch the miracle finish by Atlanta in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series -- or, for that matter, the riveting 1-0 triumph by Minnesota in Game 7 of the World Series last year.

The networks feed their greed, then wonder why ratings are down. Such visionaries, these people. They alienate young fans and working stiffs with their midnight madness, but pay no attention while they're collecting prime-time advertising rates.

The owners, of course, play right along, drooling over the TV revenue instead of worrying about the future. A commissioner might help matters -- the best interests of the game figure to include survival -- but that's another story.

True, the ALCS featured four day games out of six, the better to keep Atlanta in prime time. But the World Series will be played entirely at night, and thank heavens America's Team made it, lest CBS get stuck with Pittsburgh and Toronto.

Now, getting back to baseball.

The best two teams made this thing, despite gallant efforts by the underdog Pirates and Oakland A's that -- would you believe it? -- made for great TV. Indeed, another long series is possible, so evenly matched are the Blue Jays and Braves.

The temptation is to pick Toronto now that manager Cito Gaston will return to a four-man rotation and keep his starters on the standard four days' rest. But the suspicion is that Atlanta is hungrier coming off last year's bitter series defeat.

Toronto obviously doesn't lack for motivation -- its players wear "3-for-3" T-shirts to signify the goal of winning division, league and world titles. But in winning the pennant, the Blue Jays just cleared their biggest obstacle. This is their first series appearance. It will show.

In fact, the emotional energy expended by both teams in the LCS could result in a situation very much like 1986, when the New York Metsand Boston Red Sox looked flat for several games, then suddenly recharged to produce a memorable series.

So, why Atlanta?

First, because of the home-field advantage. It's no small thing in the series, with the designated hitter used only in the AL park. Gaston wants Dave Winfield's bat in the lineup all seven games. But if that happens, his club will suffer defensively.

Against left-handers Tom Glavine and Steve Avery, Gaston figures to bench first baseman John Olerud, with Joe Carter moving to first and Winfield to right. That would give the Blue Jays an all-right-handed lineup, but hurt them at two positions.

Carter played only four games at first this season, and looked shaky there in Game 4 of the ALCS. Winfield, meanwhile, played only 26 games in right. Don't look now, but those could be their positions the first two games, with Glavine starting the opener and Avery a candidate for Game 2.

Against right-hander John Smoltz -- the other possibility for Game 2 -- the defensive problem would not be as acute. Olerud would remain in the lineup and Winfield would replace Candy Maldonado in the outfield, with Carter either staying in right or moving to left.

Still, any change this time of year is disruptive; that's why Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland stuck with his platoon and benched hot-hitting Lloyd McClendon in Game 7 of the NLCS. The Blue Jays ranked fourth in the AL in fielding this season, but made eight errors in the ALCS. This doesn't help.

Indeed, the defensive questions mitigate the most convincing argument for Toronto -- superior starting pitching. Jack Morris, then with Minnesota, was 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA in three starts against Atlanta last October. Now he'll be joined by David Cone, Juan Guzman and Jimmy Key.

Morris and Cone struggled on three days' rest in the ALCS -- further proof of the problems that can result when players are asked to do something to which they are unaccustomed. But if Gaston incorporates the left-handed Key, each of his top three can pitch twice on normal rest.

That's scary, especially with the uncertain state of Atlanta's pitching. Glavine had a 12.27 ERA in the NLCS and Avery a 9.00 -- frightening numbers considering that the Pirates' two best hitters (Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke) are left-handed.

Nearly all of Toronto's power -- Winfield, Carter, Maldonado, Kelly Gruber -- is on the right side. This could get ugly if Glavine and PTC Avery continue to struggle. Smoltz, the NLCS MVP, will pitch only twice. The Braves needed him three times to beat the Pirates.

That said, the Blue Jays will need to play their best to beat this team -- even with a better rotation, even with a better bullpen, even with the best single player on either team (Roberto Alomar). The Braves proved in the NLCS they know how to win. The Jays must prove they can do it again.

Set the alarm for midnight.

Atlanta in seven.

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