Now-or-never Pirates face upstart Braves


PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates have won 193 games the past two seasons and are the first team in the National League to repeat as a division titlist since 1978.

Yet, their National League Championship Series opponents, the Atlanta Braves, have the higher profile because of their nationwide exposure on Ted Turner's cable network, TBS, and their gutty drive to the West Division title against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The best-of-seven series is a matchup of a powerhouse that clinched its division two weeks before the end of the regular season against the Braves, who overcame key injuries, a key suspension and a raft of doubters.

"They should take advantage of the country wanting them to win," said Pirates center fielder Andy Van Slyke. "They're the darlings, the sweethearts, even more so than Minnesota," which won the 1987 World Series.

"I think almost everybody is going to have surgery in January and February because they been doing this [the tomahawk chop] all the time. There are going to be a lot of triceps that are bigger than normal this winter."

The Pirates may be making their final charge in their current form. In the next two years, they could be devastated by free-agent defections.

Multitalented Bobby Bonilla heads next winter's free-agent cast, and he said, "It's probably a 99.9 percent chance that I'm not going to be back."

But tonight's starter, Doug Drabek, downplayed the idea of one last shot for the Pirates.

"I don't think there's a sense that if we don't win this one, there's never going to be another one," Drabek said. "You can't go into a series, think like that and be able to do it."

But Van Slyke disagreed.

"I sense the guys wanting to get it done right now," he said. "We want to seize the moment, partially because the moment is not always there and also because of the disappointment of last year."

The Cincinnati Reds beat the Pirates in six games in last year's playoffs.

Conversely, the Braves, who captured the season series with the Pirates, 9-3, have nothing to lose. They weren't expected to be in the championship series.

"I don't think having to go down to the wire is a problem at all," said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "It's kind of good for us. It's almost like being in the playoffs for two consecutive months, because each game meant so much."

"We did expend an awful lot of energy getting here," said tonight's starter, 20-game winner Tom Glavine. "It's been a tough two months, and sure we're happy to be here. That doesn't mean our desire is any lower.

"But even if we don't win, we've still had one heck of a season."

Pittsburgh has had two weeks without meaningful games and that could be a factor.

"I don't think it is really an advantage or disadvantage," said manager Jim Leyland. "What winning early has done is give us a chance to heal our bumps and bruises and allow our young guys to get at-bats. We've also used the last week to get our [pitching] staff ready."

"The Reds clinched early, and it helped them," said Van Slyke. "But I don't know. If we win the National League, I'll say, 'Yeah, the two weeks was great.' "

If the Pirates pitching is in order, so is Atlanta's, Cox said. With a meaningless game Sunday and two days off before the start of this series, "our pitchers are well rested," he said. "They've had more than their regular four days."

The Braves overcame the loss of base stealer Otis Nixon (suspended when he flunked a drug test) the last month, but it may hurt them in this series, especially with Deion Sanders ineligible.

"No doubt it was a big loss. He [Nixon] was hitting near .300 when he went down, but he was a threat every time he was out there," said Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton, the league batting champion and possible MVP.

"Otis will definitely be missed, because he puts so much pressure on. Pitchers get so concerned about him they end up walking people."

What remains is two teams that are almost mirror images: quality starting pitching, no real standout closer but numerous hands who can fulfill the role, some speed and some long-ball potential. It may boil down to which starters have the most staying power.

And the Pirates may have more to prove. Atlanta has already made its name.

"I've got more requests for tickets in Atlanta than here," said Van Slyke, "and I don't even know anybody in Georgia.

"Hey, the Pirates have been basically non-existent here except for winning the division. There is not the excitement like Atlanta is experiencing.

"I was in a hardware store buying some washers, and this guy said to me, 'Good luck in the playoffs. By the way, did you see those Steelers the other night?' "

NL playoffs

Today -- Atlanta (Glavine 20-11) at Pittsburgh (Drabek 15-14), 8:39 p.m.

Tomorrow -- Atlanta (Avery 18-8) at Pittsburgh (Smith 16-10), 8:37 p.m.

Saturday -- Pittsburgh (Smiley 20-8) at Atlanta (Smoltz 14-13), 3 p.m.

Sunday -- at Atlanta, 8:40 p.m.

Monday -- at Atlanta, 3:07 p.m.*

Oct. 16 -- at Pittsburgh, 3:07 p.m. or 8:37 p.m.*

Oct. 17 -- at Pittsburgh, 8:37 p.m.*

* -- if necessary

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