Neagle has a 2-act script NLCS: Coming home to Baltimore to pitch in a World Series and winning the Cy Young would complete his Braves dream season.

October 11, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- It is considered bad form to look too far ahead in baseball, but Atlanta Braves left-hander Denny Neagle cannot help himself. He grew up outside Baltimore, dreaming of the opportunity to pitch in the World Series in front of his hometown fans, so there's no sense trying to put it out of his mind now that it might become a reality.

"I dreamed of pitching in the World Series at Memorial Stadium," said Neagle, who will start Game 4 of the National League Championship Series tonight, marking his first start in 13 days.

"If I could pitch in the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, with Cal, the guy who was my idol growing up, still playing, I couldn't think of a better script."

How's this: How about the hometown kid coming home to pitch in the World Series and then completing his dream season by winning the National League Cy Young Award in November?

OK, that might be a bit of a stretch, but Neagle was the only 20-game winner in the National League. He ranked in the top 10 in ERA (2.97), starts (34), innings pitched (233 1/3 ), winning percentage (.800), shutouts (4) well, just about everything. Teammate Greg Maddux and Montreal Expos pitcher Pedro Martinez appear more likely to win, but Neagle likely will rank among the top three vote-getters.

Not bad for a No. 4 starter. Not bad for a kid from Gambrills who confounded the experts just by getting to the major leagues and now has an outside chance to be recognized as the best pitcher in the National League in 1997. Not bad at all, when you consider that he isn't even the best pitcher on his team.

Neagle figured to get lost in the shadows when he was acquired by the Braves late last season. The last six Cy Young Awards have been won by pitchers currently in the Braves location, all of whom still are in their prime.

Maddux, who is Neagle's chief competition for this year's trophy, already has won more Cy Youngs than any pitcher in history. John Smoltz was the winningest pitcher in baseball in 1996. Tom Glavine is one of the winningest pitchers of the 1990s. Bad company if you're looking to fill an empty spot on the mantel.

Fitting in was a challenge in itself. Emerging as an equal partner in the best starting rotation of the late 20th century was another thing altogether, though no one seems particularly surprised in the Braves' front office.

"We didn't know he would be a Cy Young candidate," said Braves president Stan Kasten, "but we knew he was a great competitor. When you put a guy with that kind of athletic ability and that kind of competitiveness into this kind of environment, something's going to happen."

It has been a steady career progression. Neagle needed a couple of years to establish himself as a solid starter in the Pittsburgh Pirates' rotation, but started to get some recognition when he won 13 games for the lowly Pirates in 1995. He was on his way to a 16-9 record when he was traded to the Braves last August, but still felt that he had to prove that he was ready for prime time.

"There was that feeling that I had to prove my worth," Neagle said. "I know there was some talk -- especially after I had a couple of tough starts last year -- that 'He's going to have trouble living up to the billing now that he's in Atlanta instead of Pittsburgh.' So If I do win a Cy Young, or even if I finish in the top two or three, I'm going to consider that a big personal accomplishment for me."

Yesterday, Neagle was pessimistic about his chances for the Cy Young.

"I thought I had a chance going into the last week," he said. "If I had been able to put up 21 or 22 wins, I might have. But then I aggravated my [non-pitching] shoulder and didn't get what I needed."

The acceptance of his Braves teammates never figured to be a problem. Neagle is a clubhouse comedian -- a likable guy who gets along with everyone, from the front office to the dugout to the press box. But in a city where winning has become a habit, he still had to take his game to the next level.

"He really fit in," Kasten said. "I have to feel that this environment had to have a hand in Denny's development -- the winning atmosphere, the expectations and the people around him -- but unless he had the character and personality and ability, it wouldn't have worked."

The Cy Young Award would be the ultimate membership card, but Maddux went 19-4 with a 2.20 ERA and Martinez won 17 games and the National League ERA title (1.90).

It might be bad luck to look too far ahead ahead. Neagle pitched the final weeks of the season with a torn rotator cuff in his non-pitching shoulder, an injury that cropped up last spring and reappeared during a pregame workout in Houston in September.

It doesn't directly affect his pitching arm, but the pain was so pronounced that he had to alter his late-season pitching schedule and modify his windup to keep from lifting his glove hand too high.

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