Braves may be looking at more questions than answers



April 15, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Every year, it seems, somebody proclaims that the end has come for the Atlanta Braves' National League East dynasty.

And every year, so far, the Braves and their outstanding pitching staff have proved somebody wrong.

This year could be different.

The Braves entered the season still considered the pre-eminent team in the division, even though the wild-card New York Mets advanced to the World Series last year. The Braves still have the best starting rotation, which gives them the best chance to win the NL East title.

But two early head-to-head series with the Mets have proved that the chemistry between the division's top two teams has changed markedly since the Mets outlasted Atlanta in October.

The Mets won four of the six games, shattering the notion (built on several years of head-to-head frustration) that they cannot beat the Braves straight up. That could be important in the first year of baseball's new unbalanced schedule. The two clubs play 13 more times - six over the final 10 days of the regular season.

The Mets also exposed the Braves' questionable offensive chemistry, outscoring them 25-14 in the two series, and outpitching them in the late innings. If not for a seven-inning, one-hit performance by Greg Maddux on Wednesday, it might have looked too easy.

It's too early to jump to any hard-and-fast conclusions, especially with the Phillies and Expos fighting for the division lead, but the Braves don't look like the same team that has won its division every year since 1991 (not counting strike-shortened 1994).

The departure of first baseman Andres Galarraga certainly hasn't helped. The Braves do not have an intimidating bat in the cleanup spot to keep the pressure off the rest of the lineup, so several key hitters have gotten off to soft starts at the plate.

The Braves have scored more than four runs just once since their 10-run performance against the Cincinnati Reds on Opening Day. They have scored two runs or fewer five times in 10 games.

No doubt, the offensive attack will pick up and the team will score enough runs to win a lot of games behind Maddux, Tom Glavine and the rest of the solid starting rotation, but the days when the Braves were a slam-dunk in the NL East appear to be over.

Gonzalez on the way

Don't forget where you heard it first. Been saying here for a couple of months now that new Cleveland Indians right fielder Juan Gonzalez would win his third American League Most Valuable Player Award this year - and he's off to a great start.

Gonzalez drove in two runs in a triumphant return to Comerica Park on Thursday, raising his season total to 14. If you're keeping score in Baltimore, that was - as of Thursday - more RBIs than any four Orioles players combined.

Why is Gonzalez such a strong early candidate for MVP? Because he has everything working in his favor: Good team. Good hitter's stadium. Good health (so far). Great incentive (one-year contract).

Barring a serious recurrence of back soreness, he should offset the loss of RBI machine Manny Ramirez - at least for one year. If he's as good as currently advertised, he'll be one of the most attractive free-agent hitters at the end of the season, and likely will hit the road again.

Here we go again

It's only two weeks into the season, of course, but there is growing evidence that the heart and soul of the Seattle Mariners the last decade was not Randy Johnson or Ken Griffey or even Alex Rodriguez.

Now that all the big-publicity guys are gone, the Mariners are still winning, and their unquestioned leader is no-nonsense veteran Edgar Martinez.

Martinez entered Friday's game batting .433, with two home runs and eight RBIs. The Mariners entered Friday with a 7-2 record and a two-game lead in the American League West.

Lest anyone forget, it was Martinez who single-handedly filled the offensive vacuum after Griffey departed last year, leading the American League with 145 RBIs and leading the Mariners to the AL Championship Series. The challenge will be much greater this year - without both Griffey and A-Rod - but Martinez is making every swing count again.

If the Mariners win the division, E-Mar ought to get a lot of MVP votes, even if he is just a DH.

Come on, get happy

The Phillies won six of their first eight games to take the lead in the NL East, but it didn't register in the stands. They have averaged about 13,000 fans in the four home games after their home opener (which drew only 36,380), which isn't particularly surprising considering their poor recent history, poor prospects for 2001 and poor weather.

But pitcher Randy Wolf was so disappointed by the turnout that he publicly challenged local fans to get out and support the team.

"If you live in Philly, be excited about us," Wolf said. "I don't like anyone saying, `It's early.' Who cares? If you're a fan, don't wait a month. This is their team. Don't just support us when we're winning. Support us all the time. That I think would make them most proud, to think they were here before this happened."

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