Braves aren't ready for chopping block


October 24, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ATLANTA -- Well, you just knew the Cito factor had to surface. The World Series is back in Atlanta, and Jack Morris is still standing on the SkyDome mound. One more hitter, Jack, just one more.

Just as Cito Gaston isn't that superior to Bobby Cox, the Blue Jays aren't that superior to the Braves. This baby deserves to go seven, and while Toronto rates the obvious edge, we'll stay with our original pick of Atlanta.

The Braves weren't about to concede Thursday night, for they haven't lost four straight since June 28-July 2, 1991. Attention, Toronto police: Next time you plan a victory parade, check the statistics first, worry about logistics second.

"It made us look like jerks," a Blue Jays spokesman said, and suddenly all of Canada is in a panic. The Braves rallied from a 3-2 deficit in Pittsburgh to win last year's National League playoffs, and now they're back home in Francisco Cabrera land.

They might actually pull off another miracle, presuming they just say no to closer Jeff Reardon. That was easy in Game 5, when they won by a convincing 7-2 margin. But what happens if they take a one-run lead into the ninth tonight?

Cox blew Game 6 last year by summoning Charlie Leibrandt to face Kirby Puckett, and he'd be crazy to allow history to repeat. The difference in bullpens is one reason to still favor Toronto. But in many ways, this series is due to even out.

The Braves have outscored the Jays 17-13 and outhit them .222-.204. Their starting pitchers' ERA is 2.35 compared with Toronto's 5.96. And now they can start the red-hot Deion Sanders against right-handers David Cone and Juan Guzman in the final two games.

Cone has allowed 17 base runners in his past 8 1/3 innings, and Sanders had two of the four stolen bases against him in Game 2. Guzman looks far less beatable -- he's 28-6 since June '91 -- but can he win a Game 7 on the road? The home team has won 27 of the past 35 Series contests.

Two of the losses came in this series, but that statistic is daunting. Pitchers will hit now that the series is back in the NL park. Gaston presumably will keep designated hitter Dave Winfield in his lineup, but not without a price.

Against left-handers Steve Avery and Tom Glavine, Gaston figures to adjust as he did in Game 1, benching John Olerud, playing Winfield in right field and moving Joe Carter to first base. It never became an issue then, but the Jays are again weaker at two positions, at a time when everything matters.

And Gaston, you ask? Until Thursday night, the upset of the series was that he was out-managing Cox. His passive style isn't necessarily the wrong approach for such a gifted club. But at times this October, he has been downright charmed.

Take Game 4 of the AL playoffs. Most dramatic victory in Blue Jays history. Yet, no one recalls how lucky they were to complete their stunning comeback against Dennis Eckersley, the way Gaston managed with the score tied in the Oakland ninth.

With one out and the potential winning run at third base, Gaston summoned reliever Duane Ward. The next two hitters were Terry Steinbach and Carney Lansford, and the obvious strategy was to walk them intentionally to set up a force at every base.

In this case, it would have made even more sense because Ward would have faced Mike Bordick, who was 1-for-12 in the series. But Ward told Gaston he wanted to pitch to Steinbach and Lansford, and that was that. The Jays escaped, thanks to a base-running blunder by Eric Fox.

The bizarre sequence was overlooked amid the sound and fury of the Eckersley blowup, and Gaston began the World Series equally blessed. Remember Game 2, and pinch hitter Ed Sprague's game-winning, two-run homer? Sprague's own father -- Orioles scout Ed Sprague Sr. -- expected him to be used before the ninth.

Instead, Gaston wasted veteran Candy Maldonado as a pinch hitter in the seventh, leaving himself with Derek Bell and Sprague -- two youngsters he ignored all season -- with the game on the line. Bell drew a walk, and Sprague followed with his homer. Nary a second-guesser could be found.

No doubt Gaston has made some excellent decisions -- the switch to a four-man rotation, the Winfield bunt in Game 3 -- but the Blue Jays moved within one victory of their first world title mainly by taking advantage of Atlanta's late-inning relief.

That problem still haunts Atlanta, but if Lonnie Smith can find redemption, maybe Reardon can, too. This baby deserves to go seven. Sprague will crush another ball off Reardon tomorrow night. Neon Deion will moonwalk under it for the final out.

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