The dynasty of the '90s? No contest -- it's the Braves

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

September 26, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The New York Yankees get all the ink, but let's be honest. The true dynasty of the 1990s is -- and always has been -- in Atlanta, where the Braves have won their division so routinely over the past decade that baseball fans have started to take them for granted.

Take this year, for instance. The early loss of first baseman Andres Galarraga and the occasional struggles of some of the elite members of the starting rotation created the notion that the Braves are in decline.

You might want to ask the New York Mets about that.

The Braves, finally faced with a challenge after all these years, matched up with the emergent Mets in a showdown series this past week and proved again that they are still the team to beat in the National League -- three games to none.

Third baseman Chipper Jones proved something, too. He proved that he should be the NL's Most Valuable Player after using the Mets series to put an exclamation point on one of the greatest all-around seasons in the history of the game.

Jones drove in two runs in Tuesday's series opener to reach 100 RBIs, all but guaranteeing that he will become the first player in history to bat .300, score 100 runs, hit 40 doubles and 40 home runs, drive in 100 runs, draw 100 walks and steal 20 bases.

"As a player, I shoot for no weaknesses," Jones told reporters afterward. "I want all facets of my game to be strong. I take pride in being a guy who can do all those things. The only thing missing is being in the running for a Gold Glove one of these years."

The Braves do have some weaknesses. Premier starters John Smoltz and Tom Glavine are having off years, and the offense ranks in the lower half of the league in combined batting average and runs, but that hasn't kept them from running up the best record in baseball.

They have rolled into the postseason the past two years only to lose the League Championship Series to the Florida Marlins (1997) and the San Diego Padres (1998), both times with seemingly superior teams to the one that hopes to go farther this year. This year may be different.

The Braves appear to be gathering momentum at just the right time, and they have an answer to those who point to the struggles of Smoltz and Glavine as cause for great concern -- Kevin Millwood.

The 24-year-old right-hander is 18-7 and has been the most effective starter, particularly during the final weeks of the regular season. He has a six-game winning streak and ranks second only to Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson with a 2.69 ERA.

Though future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux (19-8) still is the undisputed ace of the staff, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if Millwood were to start Game 1 of the Division Series. That's the way the rotation stacks up at the moment.

Is Pedro MVP material?

Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez turned in another signature performance on Tuesday night, striking out 12 and recording his 300th strikeout of the season during an impressive shutout victory over the Toronto Blue Jays.

The fans at Fenway Park responded by giving him a new set of initials -- chanting "M-V-P! M-V-P!" throughout the evening -- but it remains to be seen if the voters who actually pick the American League Most Valuable Player are going to agree.

Martinez is a lock to win the American League Cy Young Award, but it's much tougher for a pitcher to win MVP honors. It happens, but the award usually goes to an everyday player.

The favorites appear to be former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and Cleveland Indians outfielder Manny Ramirez, both of whom are at or near the top of the league rankings in all three Triple Crown categories. Roberto Alomar and Derek Jeter also are strong candidates, as is Martinez, who has been the cornerstone of the most efficient staff in the league.

Prediction: Palmeiro to win. Ramirez to place. Martinez to show.

Hispanic hit parade

Though the road to the major leagues is sometimes a difficult one for Latin players, they have not let that keep them from dominating the American League offensive rankings.

Entering Friday's games, nine of the top 10 hitters in the American League were of Hispanic descent, and Latin players made up more than half the names on the entire AL offensive leader sheet.

Renegotiating Sammy

Superstar Sammy Sosa is contractually tied to the Chicago Cubs for another three years at an average salary of $11 million, but don't be surprised if the club agrees to renegotiate that deal this off-season.

The contract was signed before Sosa's 66-homer performance last year, so agent Adam Katz reportedly thinks he can make a case for a raise to $15 million a season or more.

The Cubs could just say no and let the contract run its course, but look for general manager Ed Lynch to try to accommodate one of the game's most popular players.

"If Sammy has concerns or thoughts," Lynch said recently, "we have to try and do what we can. Sammy obviously is one of the great players in baseball. When Sammy talks, we listen."

Safe in San Diego

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