Braves are hot, but Pirate 'mission' is strong plus, too


PITTSBURGH -- So which team would you rather be when those National League playoffs begin tonight?

The team with the best record in baseball? The team that clinched the Eastern Division title 17 long, restful days ago? The team that became the first National League club since 1978 to win a divisional title two years in a row? The team with all that valuable firsthand playoff know-how?

That team is the Pittsburgh Pirates, of course.

Or would you rather be the team that roared into the playoffs on one of the most spectacular late-season rolls since, well, the 1980 Phillies? The team that had to win eight games in a row in the last week and a half just to make the playoffs? The team that won almost as many games after the All-Star break (55) as the Cleveland Indians won all season (57)?

That team, naturally, is the Atlanta Tomahawks -- er, Braves.

So whose situation would you prefer? It is one of those classic October questions, one that has been debated practically since the Stone Age. Is it better to be rested or hot? Is it advantageous to be experienced or hungry?

There are no easy answers. But we'll find out soon enough, because the Braves and Pirates will hook up tonight in Game One (8:30, Ch. 11). Cy Young (Tom Glavine) will oppose Cy Old (Doug Drabek), and the story line for what could be a fabulous series will start to form.

* THE MOMENTUM FACTOR: OK, let's admit it. These Braves have been way, way out of control lately.

They went on a six-game road trip and went 6-0. Of the eight games in a row they just won, they came from behind in three of them and won another in the 13th inning. They were 9 1/2 games back at the All-Star break and two games back with eight to play, and even that didn't stop them.

But now things are different. They don't have Deion Sanders and his famous helicopter around anymore. They don't have the Houston Astros around to play anymore. They are on their own now, playing the most well-rounded team in baseball. So how much does it matter that they have been hotter than a microwave?

"I don't think momentum means that much in a situation like this, because now they're playing the big boys," said one National League scout. "Hey, don't get me wrong. That was a great thing they just did. But now they're playing a better ballclub, a club that has some postseason experience. And I just don't think they'll be able to handle it as well."

Take last year's American League playoffs, for example. Boston won with a big surge in the last week. Oakland had the Western Division title wrapped up by about the Fourth of July. The Red Sox had emotion and momentum. But the A's had the better team. And it was the team with the momentum that was blown out.

But the Braves are better than the Red Sox. And there are also advantages to winning the way Atlanta had to win in the National League West.

"It was almost like being in the playoffs for two consecutive months," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "Every game meant so much -- every series, every swing of the bat. So they're accustomed to this style of play right now. And that ought to help us."

* THE MISSION FACTOR: For six months now, there has been something different, something special, about these '91 Pirates. They have grown up together. Last year, they lost a painful six-game playoff series to Cincinnati together. And this year, they are doing one more thing together:

They are taking what is undoubtedly their last big shot at winning it all together.

It is all but a fait accompli that Pittsburgh's superduperstar cleanup hitter, Bobby Bonilla, won't be a Pirate next season. So if ever a team had one last mission to carry out, it is these Pirates. That mission is to win the World Series now, before money, or the lack of it, rips this team to confetti.

In last year's playoffs, the Pirates hit .194 as a team, got two RBIs combined from Barry Bonds and Bonilla, and still almost beat the Reds. They still talk about how much that loss hurt.

"You sat there and watched the World Series, and you know a hit here or there, and that could have been us," Andy Van Slyke said the other day. "And then to watch the dog get a World Series flea collar -- that was a little tough to take." (He was referring, of course, to the Reds' dear, departed Schottzie.)

But as logical as it seems that teams would use something like that as a springboard, it doesn't always work that way. In fact, since the playoffs began in 1969, 11 teams have gone back to the postseason after losing the previous season. Seven of them lost then, too.

* THE LEFTHANDER FACTOR: Another problem the Pirates have in this series is the left arm of Glavine, of Steve Avery, who will start Game 2, and of Charlie Leibrandt, who will start Game 4.

The Pirates did go 34-19 against lefthanded starters this year. But one National League scout says that's misleading.

"I think Pittsburgh is a little vulnerable to lefthanded pitchers," he said. "You throw lefthanders and you're going to turn Bonilla around to the right side," where he hits for more power but a lower average. "It doesn't bother [Barry] Bonds much. But it bothers Van Slyke a lot. And it gets [Orlando] Merced and [Mike] LaValliere out of the game. So I think that helps the Braves."

Bonds is hitting .284 against lefthanders, and .298 against righthanders. Van Slyke is hitting only .194 against lefties.

Moreover, while lefthanders in general don't seem to faze Bonds, the Braves' three lefthanders do. He is 1-for-9 lifetime against Avery, 2-for-10 against Leibrandt and 3-for-14 against Glavine. Remember, too, that the Pirates went 3-9 against the Braves this year, and were 0-6 in Atlanta. So if any staff can neutralize that Pittsburgh offense, this Atlanta staff is it.

* THE BULLPEN FACTOR: Another longtime postseason axiom is that you have to have a hot closer to win it all.

The Braves have one in Alejandro Pena, who has 11 saves in 11 opportunities as a Brave. The Pirates, on the other hand, not only don't have a hot closer, they don't have a closer at all.

"When Roger Mason is probably your most consistent reliever, that's not saying a whole lot about your bullpen," said a National League scout. "But the thing I look at with their bullpen is that even though they're not the Nasty Boys, at least they've got versatility. They can really run a bunch of guys at you -- right, left, right, left. They can do that as well as anybody."

The Pirates did finish tied for the league lead in saves. But their bullpen also blew 10 saves in the second half of the season, as opposed to four in the first half. So their relievers are not exactly on a roll.

* THE BIG 3 FACTOR: When the question of the day is, "What's the best outfield in baseball?" you can close down the debate in about three seconds. The only correct answer is Bonds, Van Slyke and Bonilla.

They catch everything in the air except the mosquitoes. They combined for 299 RBIs this year. And they either drove in or scored close to 40 percent of the Pirates' runs.

If anyone is supposed to carry the Pirates this time of year, it is those three. They didn't last year, though.

Bonds hit .167 in the playoffs, with one RBI. Bonilla hit .190, with one RBI. Van Slyke hit .208, with three RBIs. They were a combined 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position. And the Pirates still almost won. So if they get hot this week, imagine what might happen.

"If I had to pick one guy to win this series all by himself, I'd pick Bonds," said one scout. "If he set his mind to it, he could do a lot to disrupt this whole series. He's just that type of player. And he might want to prove something after last year."

Then again, so might his whole team.

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