Facing Schilling in Game 3, Burkett hopes to stay on roll

Part-time bowler enjoys career rebirth in Atlanta

Championship Series

October 19, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - An avid bowler who has rolled more 300 games than he can accurately count - it's either nine or 10 by his estimation - Atlanta Braves pitcher John Burkett is accustomed to throwing strikes. He'll need plenty of them tonight to be spared a loss.

Taking the ball for Game 3 of the National League Championship Series also means taking on Arizona's Curt Schilling. It's an assignment few would envy.

Schilling racked up two complete games in the Division Series, including a 1-0 gem against St. Louis' Matt Morris. Though older now and carrying a few extra pounds, he looks the same as he did during the 1993 NLCS when he faced the Braves twice. The ace of Philadelphia's staff, he allowed three earned runs with 19 strikeouts in 16 innings, his fastball every bit as vicious as today.

"I think before that I was a loud nobody," he said. "Then I became a loud somebody."

It's up to Burkett to quiet him. Something few people within the industry could have expected from Burkett once the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays released him in spring training last year, shortly after his former team, the Texas Rangers, failed to offer him a contract.

Needing to solidify their rotation because of John Smoltz's elbow surgery, the Braves settled on Burkett after losing out to the Colorado Rockies in the Mike Hampton sweepstakes. It was like going from prime rib to meatloaf, except Burkett turned out to be the choicest cut, making the All-Star team and ranking third in the league with a 3.04 ERA and sixth with 187 strikeouts.

"I can't say that it's a surprise that he's pitched well," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, "but when you see his name in a lot of categories, leading in pitching, that's probably a little bit of a surprise. But we had a lot of confidence in Burkett going into the season. Unfortunately, we didn't get him a lot of runs. He could have easily been a 15- or 20-game winner. To see him up there in strikeouts and ERA and all that is pretty phenomenal."

He was just as efficient in the Division Series, completing the Braves' three-game sweep over favored Houston.

"It's been an amazing ride, definitely," said Burkett, who turns 37 next month. "I didn't make the [Devil Rays] out of spring training, but Bobby Cox and [pitching coach] Leo Mazzone saw something they liked, grabbed me and here I am. It's unbelievable. I'm going to be pitching Game 3 in the NLCS for the Atlanta Braves. Just two years ago I felt like I was ready to retire."

Leveling the Astros in the Division Series brought more satisfaction to Burkett than knocking down pins. "I really enjoy bowling," he said, "so my first 300 game was exciting because I was only 17 years old. But I think doing things as a member of a team makes it a lot more fun because you can enjoy it with other people. That's why I enjoy baseball more than bowling. You have 24 other guys on the team, plus coaches and the manager and the organization and sometimes a whole city celebrating your success."

Facing Schilling is more like having the weight of the world on your shoulders.

"I'll just go in and prepare for [tonight] and I'll be ready to go," he said. "I really don't think about the other pitcher, to tell you the truth. I just have to execute on my own to get those guys out. That's what's really on my mind."

Better to block out Schilling's 22 victories during the regular season, the 2.98 ERA, the 293 strikeouts, the debate over whether he'll top teammate Randy Johnson in the Cy Young voting.

"I don't question for a second that [Johnson's] been a huge factor in the consistency that I've had this year," said Schilling, who spent parts of three seasons with the Orioles before becoming part of the infamous Glenn Davis trade in 1991. "There's an intensity and a focus that I believe I've always had. Until I met him, I believed that no one had more than I did. I was sorely mistaken after watching him pitch a few times, realizing that there's another level."

Schilling can do more than protect a lead like a worrisome big brother. He also can protect a bullpen that was exposed again in Game 2, when the Braves scored five runs in the eighth inning.

Lacking power arms similar to those in the Braves' bullpen, Arizona is vulnerable to such breakdowns. If Atlanta possesses one enormous advantage in this series, it's found through the outfield gates.

"We've pushed it to the limit all year," said left-hander Greg Swindell, who served up a two-run homer to former Oriole B.J. Surhoff. "There's no sense in changing things now."

If only they could. The Diamondbacks blew 16 of 50 save opportunities this season and often used trembling hands to nail down a win.

"Our guys down there are obviously not power pitchers," said Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly, comparing them to Atlanta's late-inning specialists, Smoltz and Steve Karsay. "They rely on movement and location. Certainly, the location wasn't there."

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