Braves' new closer enjoys pennant race Rookie McMichael was a long shot National League

August 24, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

ATLANTA -- Just over his right shoulder, just beyond the left field-fence and barely visible through the heat-induced haze, the score was displayed: Pittsburgh 10, San Francisco 3.

But Greg McMichael had other numbers on his mind. Atlanta Braves 3, Los Angeles Dodgers 2, with the tying run at second, and two out in the top of the ninth. Pinch hitter Dave Hansen, a .350 hitter, stood 60 feet, 6 inches away, waiting for the first pitch.

A curveball that nipped the corner of the plate was strike one. A fastball slipped past a vicious swing for strike two.

McMichael had struck out the first two batters of the inning. A third strikeout would end the game. A hit could mean the end of the experiment to make McMichael a closer. Over his left shoulder, in the Atlanta bullpen, Mike Stanton and his 27 saves were getting ready, just in case.

"Concentration is everything," Stanton said. "People talk about pressure on relief pitchers, but it all boils down to concentration."

McMichael's concentration showed on his fifth pitch to Hansen. Another curveball started to break just before Hansen's swing and McMichael had successfully completed another Braves' win again.

For the 26-year-old rookie right-hander, it was the eighth save in eight attempts.

"He's been outstanding," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "He's done everything we've asked him to do. You need a guy who can fill a lot of different roles. He's been that guy."

"It's been exciting," he said. "Now especially, with the pennant race really heating up and my new role as a closer, it feels like everything is speeding up in a hurry, like it's rolling downhill."

McMichael pitched three seasons at Tennessee and was a seventh-round pick by the Cleveland Indians in 1988. After pitching three years in that organization, he was released at the end of the 1990 season.

"This season has been even sweeter knowing that I almost quit the game completely," McMichael said. "I had knee surgery that year [1990], and the Indians told me I couldn't play. It was time to really take a hard look at my future."

With spring training approaching in 1991, the Braves invited McMichael to their minor-league spring training. He was signed as a free agent in April of that year and assigned to Single-A Durham, where he was 5-6 with a 3.62 ERA and two saves. Last season, at Double-A Greenville and Triple-A Richmond, he was 10-7 with a 3.37 ERA and three saves, 139 strikeouts and 47 walks in 136 innings.

Those numbers weren't enough for McMichael to expect an invitation to spring training with the major-league club this year. After playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, he got one.

"That was the first time I realized I had a real opportunity to make it to the major-league level this season," he said.

The fairy-tale season took another turn in July, when McMichael became the team's primary closer. On July 28, in a 3-2 win at Colorado, he earned his first save. Until then, Stanton had all of the team's 26 saves. In the past month, McMichael -- 1-3 with a 2.16 ERA, 69 strikeouts and 19 walks -- has eight of the team's past nine saves.

"It was a big adjustment getting used to the feeling of being on the mound at the end of the game," he said. "It's a greater sense of accomplishment when you finish it. You feel more like you've helped win it."

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