ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves opened Turner Field on April 4 and hoped to christen it in October with a World Series matchup. Tonight, against an Orioles bunch bold enough to challenge their claim to pitching superiority, the Braves get their wish four months early.
Key vs. Maddux. Mussina vs. Smoltz. Erickson vs. Glavine. Even baseball purists might set aside their revulsion for interleague play to savor the next three days on Hank Aaron Way.
Two Braves, first-year right fielder Michael Tucker and four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux represent the extremes in perspective.
"It's almost like a World Series," says Tucker, who never got close to one with the Kansas City Royals.
"Hey, man, it's just another game. The first interleague game," cautioned Maddux, hardly an excitable boy. "What it really boils down to is it's just another game. It's not the World Series. It's not late September in the middle of a pennant race. I mean, it's the middle of June and it's a game."
Most Orioles share Maddux's view, though the challenge of comparing themselves against the decade's most fearsome pitching staff intrigues at least fourth starter Scott Kamieniecki. "I do think it's important. Teams have been comparing themselves against the Braves for the last five or six years," Kamieniecki said. "Sure, I think it will be interesting to see. They're postseason-type matchups. How could that not be intriguing?"
Consider this: The Orioles are considered the stronger hitting team but carry a lower team batting average than the Braves. The Braves are deeded baseball's best pitching staff, yet the Orioles' team ERA is farther below their league's average than the Braves'is theirs. The Orioles come in at 42-18, the Braves 42-22. "I think a lot of people would like to see this series in October, but it's too early for any of us to make predictions like that. Way too early," said catcher Chris Hoiles.
"I don't think it's a huge deal but I think you can look at it as being as important as playing Cleveland and the Mariners, strong teams that aren't in our division," says reliever Terry Mathews, one of four National League alums on the Orioles staff. "They've got great pitching and we've got great pitching. We're two of the best teams in the game right now."
Mathews theorizes the lower, wider NL strike zone should actually help Jimmy Key, Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson, all of whom rely on pitching down.
"As a whole, our staff probably throws harder than theirs and they might have a little better control. They have to because they're going to get hurt more on mistakes," says Mathews, who began last season with the Florida Marlins. "The flip side is they don't make many mistakes."
Maddux has struck out 72 against 13 walks and ranks third in the NL with a 2.01 ERA. Two starts ago, Smoltz, the incumbent Cy Young Award winner, surrendered three homers to the San Francisco Giants and has five losses. He still ranks second in innings pitched. Glavine pitched five innings in a loss to the Colorado Rockies on Monday but ranks fifth in innings. His 3.13 ERA is the highest by a Braves starting pitcher.
Mussina enters riding an eight-game win streak. Key began the season with nine consecutive wins. Scott Erickson has re-emerged as The Terminator. Their combined record (27-4) outstrips the Braves' top three (19-11).
Other elements, such as pitchers gripping a strange piece of ash, are equally fascinating. While Erickson has thrown himself into batting practice, Mussina has mostly abstained. For all their commitment to hitting, Braves pitchers are batting .xxx this year with John Smoltz accounting for 14 of their 27 hits.
Acknowledging some AL managers may struggle without the safety net of the designated hitter, Orioles manager Davey Johnson, a 10-year veteran of NL-style managing, relishes his return to double-switches and tactical managing.
"I'm excited about it. I've had some awfully good times playing the Braves," said Johnson, whose Cincinnati Reds were eliminated by the Braves from the 1995 NL playoffs. "I've also had some gut-wrenching times. That's what happens when you're going against a team that might be the best team of the 1990s. I'd feel better going in there with Warren Spahn and Whitey Ford to counter their left-handed thunder."
Nobody's done much with the Braves this year. The Braves and Orioles are the only teams yet to taste anything worse than a two-game losing streak. Like Johnson, Braves manager Bobby Cox is less than enthused about interleague play because of the scheduling complications it causes.
Cox shouldn't complain. His lineup will not be altered by the absence of a designated hitter, which will relegate Pete Incaviglia to pinch-hitting duty. Orioles pitchers have been taking cuts for several weeks in preparation for the next six days. To pitching coach Ray Miller, their presence in the batter's box isn't as much cause for concern as the chance they may find themselves on base.