Mound of difference

So far, Mazzone's move hasn't helped O's as much as it has hurt Braves

June 30, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER AND JEFF ZREBIEC | CHILDS WALKER AND JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTERS

It was among the first questions on the lips of baseball observers entering this season. Would Leo Mazzone's switch from the Atlanta Braves to the Orioles leave one pitching dynasty in shambles and herald the coming of another?

Today, as Mazzone makes his first return trip to Atlanta as Orioles pitching coach, the question remains unanswered.

Orioles pitchers got off to a terrible start. And even after pitching better of late, they rank first in the majors in walks and second to last in ERA.

Meanwhile, the Braves are experiencing their worst pitching season and worst season overall since 1990. Mazzone's staffs led the National League in ERA 10 times in his 15 seasons (they finished sixth in 2005). But this year, the Braves rank 10th at 4.67.

In the quest to discern Mazzone's impact, this year's data could hardly be less conclusive.

Mazzone backers point to the careers he turned around - John Burkett, Jorge Sosa, Jaret Wright - and to the fact his Braves pitchers posted an ERA .63 lower than they did for all other teams.

"The bottom line is the guy is good," said catcher Javy Lopez, who has watched Mazzone work with pitchers in both Atlanta and Baltimore. "You've got to give him credit. They said in the beginning that he just had good pitchers but you compare the last few years, he didn't have the same kind of pitchers. He had a bunch of rookies and he still brings that team up to the division championship. What's the excuse then?"

Orioles reliever LaTroy Hawkins agreed.

"They already had the stuff, but I'm pretty sure he helped them mentally," he said. "He knew what buttons to push to fire them up, what buttons to push to calm them down."

Doubters have noted that Mazzone had the luxury of building his Atlanta staffs around three potential Hall of Famers in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. And, he never operated without manager Bobby Cox or general manager John Schuerholz.

Mazzone is the first to say he worked no miracles.

"I was just a small part of the equation," he said. "Just a small part. You had a whole lot more than a pitching coach involved in the greatest pitching run ever in the big leagues. One, you had the pitchers. Two, you had the manager. And I slid in behind them. I didn't put them on the map; they put me on the map."

Regardless of the debate about his impact, Mazzone said he'll enjoy going back to the city where he became famous.

"It won't be like any other for me personally," he said of the trip. "All the new situations that I'm in here, I've looked forward to every series with a lot of anticipation and the different style of game in the American League. But going to Atlanta will certainly be different."

"It'll be fun for him," said Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, whose longtime friendship with Mazzone helped attract the pitching guru. "You know, he's got a lot of good memories down there. He put a lot of good time in and won a lot of championships, so I just hope the people accept him for what he did and not for anything else."

Still a Braves fan

Mazzone cherishes his time in Atlanta and still follows his old pupils, Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine, closely. He doesn't know most of the current Braves as well but pulls for them.

"I want them to get their 15th straight division title," Mazzone said. "I do nothing but look in the paper and root for them every day."

Braves pitchers praised Mazzone to the nines during his time with them. "Everyone knows it: Leo's the best," Mike Hampton once said.

But the Braves didn't put up much of a fight when Mazzone negotiated a three-year contract, believed to be worth about $500,000 a year, with the Orioles. His base salary in Atlanta was more than $200,000 lower.

Then, some pitchers and some Atlanta writers downplayed the impact of his leaving this spring. A few younger pitchers even said they were intimidated by Mazzone's gruffness and looked forward to Roger McDowell's more laid-back approach.

"Just because you don't talk about the devastation, that doesn't mean you're glad he's gone," Smoltz told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Under McDowell, the Braves were struggling along with a 4.67 ERA through Wednesday. Sosa, Mazzone's prize reclamation project from last season, is 2-10. Only Smoltz has soldiered on as a reasonable facsimile of himself.

If Mazzone's former pitchers have faltered without him, he hasn't thrived without them, either.

The Orioles of the 1970s were the Atlanta Braves of the past 15 years, a consistent winner built around excellent starting pitching. Fans thought Mazzone might help the franchise recapture its past.

It hasn't happened yet. Just last month, Mazzone questioned his staff's passion and ability to throw fastballs for strikes. But he sounded more optimistic this week. Mazzone said he sees starters Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Kris Benson and closer Chris Ray as building blocks.

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