Confident Braves find themselves cleaned out Baseball's team of decade might spend winter restocking middle relief

October 16, 1997|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- They kept talking about their resilience, the ability to bounce back as they had in 1996 when trailing the St. Louis Cardinals three games to one.

The standard line was that their professionalism, quiet confidence and superior starting pitching would bail them out of this predicament.

They defended themselves by pointing to six appearances in the National League Championship Series this decade.

Manager Bobby Cox said before Game 6 that winning two straight games was commonplace for the Atlanta Braves.

"We've done that a million times against great pitching," Cox said. "I think it reinforces in our little brains that we can do it again."

They couldn't. Tom Glavine struggled and had no luck. Florida's Kevin Brown survived some tough early innings and a possible pullout after the sixth to go the distance.

And the upstart Marlins are in their first World Series after a 7-4 clinching victory Tuesday night.

Despite dominating Florida statistically, the Braves now face the long winter to ponder how they can repeat in a rugged National League East.

"We outpitched them, we outhit them, but we didn't outplay them," said left fielder Ryan Klesko. "I don't know what to say. It's a strange feeling. I've been in the World Series the last two years, and now I'm going to spend the next two weeks hunting and fishing, trying to forget about this."

What went wrong?

Well, the Braves did not exploit the expanded strike zones of the umpires as well as the Marlins, especially not Sunday in the pivotal Game 5, when the series' Most Valuable Player, rookie Livan Hernandez, flourished by keeping the ball away and farther away from the Atlanta hitters.

And the Braves committed defensive lapses at inopportune moments, particularly in Game 1 behind Greg Maddux.

Even their great starters -- largely responsible for holding Florida to a .199 team batting average, lowest in the NLCS since the losing Pittsburgh Pirates hit .194 in 1990 -- were not enough.

"The bottom line is the Marlins did what they had to do to win," said Glavine, who lost the clincher. "We've won six divisions, done something no one else has done. But we're a victim of our own success.

"Because we've been close so many times, we get judged on our lack of world championships rather than our championship. We had a good year with a bad ending."

The series underscored the unpopularity of the late spring training trade that brought fleet center fielder Kenny Lofton (.185 in the NLCS and barely a base-running threat) and reliever Alan Embree to Atlanta for David Justice and Marquis Grissom. Lofton, like shortstop Jeff Blauser, is now a free agent.

It underscored the Braves' lack of confidence in their middle relief, which pitched only 6 2/3 innings in six games while the starters went 44 1/3 . Braves relievers did not allow a run.

Cox stuck with Glavine for what seemed like an interminable period in Game 6, despite Glavine's frustration with what he considered a shrunken strike zone and despite a flurry of ground balls finding openings in a nightmarish sixth inning.

With the free-spending Marlins, improving New York Mets and talented Montreal Expos to contend with in their division, the Braves are no cinch to come back again.

General manager John Schuerholz said the bench depth was addressed this season with the additions of Michael Tucker and Keith Lockhart and that bullpen help was the final priority.

"We have a financial roster that we work with, and there are parameters," Schuerholz said. "Once you finished signing the players you view as the most critical and necessary, there are only so many funds left available to do what you would like.

"I'd still rather sign starting pitching and everyday players."

The Braves' fall came on the five-year anniversary of Francisco Cabrera's dramatic hit that beat Florida manager Jim Leyland's Pirates, his biggest disappointment in baseball.

Redemption arrived because it was the Marlins who had the inspiration, the motivation and the knack for overcoming adversities in this series (the loss of starting pitcher Alex Fernandez to a torn rotator cuff, Brown's problems with the flu and various other ailments and injuries).

The team with more spark won.

"We never got anything started," Klesko said. "They always got that one key hit."

NOTES: Marlins catcher Charles Johnson, an All-Star who set a major-league record with 171 consecutive errorless games, had two throwing errors during the series. Lockhart batted .500 and tied an NLCS record with four final-game hits. Glavine had the only hit by a pitcher during the series. Florida's Gary Sheffield walked seven times, an NLCS record. Consecutive complete games by Denny Neagle, Hernandez and Brown marked the first time that has happened since 1973, when the New York Mets' Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman did it against the Cincinnati Reds.

Braves in '90s

This is the fourth time this decade the Braves have lost in the postseason to a team with a regular-season record worse than theirs. A look:

Yr. .. .. ..Wins .. .. .. .. .Lost to (Wins)

'91 .. .. ...94 .. .. .. .. ..Twins-WS (95)

'92 .. .. ...98 .. .. .. .. ..Jays-WS (96)

'93 .. .. ..104 .. .. .. .. ..Phillies-NLCS (97)

'96 .. .. ...96 .. .. .. .. ..Yankees-WS (92)

'97 .. .. ..101 .. .. .. .. ..Marlins-NLCS (92)

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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