In NL, only year changes Braves, Pirates may put on another fabulous show


ATLANTA -- Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox won't say anything. This year is the same as last year, except everybody's a year older. The National League playoffs will come down to pitching, defense and that old standby: Who wants it more?

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland won't say anything. This year is the same as last year, except everybody's a year older and the Pirates are tired of losing in the playoffs.

They held a news conference yesterday to discuss the rematch of last year's playoff series, which everyone thought was the greatest thing ever -- until they played the World Series.

Cox and Leyland are no-frills baseball men. They'd rather play 100 games than talk about one. With that in mind, they made one point clear: Jump to your own conclusions. They aren't helping.

Question: Do you think the Pirates are a better club than last year?

Cox: It could be. I'm not sure.

Question: Do you see similarities between these two teams?

Leyland: It went seven games last year. You can't play eight.

The series begins tonight at 8:39 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, with Doug Drabek facing John Smoltz and a full house making a lot of racket.

If luck is on baseball's side, this series will mirror last season's.

Most of the time, repetition wouldn't be considered a good thing. In this case, bring it on.

Substitute Pirates rookie Tim Wakefield for John Smiley, then add Otis Nixon and Deion Sanders to the Braves' mix. Other than that, see last year.

"We weren't embarrassed last year," Leyland said. "A lot of people evidently felt we should have been embarrassed, but we weren't. There aren't many people in Pittsburgh -- outside of a few fans, maybe -- who feel embarrassed that we haven't won the past two years."

There are any number of tremendous matchups and story linewaiting to happen: Steve Avery and Tom Glavine vs. Barry

Bonds and Andy Van Slyke; MVP candidates Terry Pendleton vs. Bonds; Cox vs. Leyland; Nixon and Sanders vs. the Pirates' pitchers and catchers; David Justice and his grudge vs. the Pirates and the world at large; Wakefield's knuckleball vs. the laws of physics.

A sampling of what to watch:

* The Big Guy Factor: Bonds and Van Slyke combined to take big header in last year's playoffs, managing just eight hits in 52 at-bats.

With his second MVP award pending, Bonds seems to be more than willing to simply survive the playoffs.

"Get me through the playoffs," Bonds said. "Get me past Atlanta. Get me to the World Series, and I'll win it for you."

Lost in the bleak statistics that marked the performances o Bonds and Van Slyke is one salient fact: The way the Braves were pitching last year during the postseason, not many players would have hit.

Smoltz, who has held the Pirates to a .220 average over his career, has a simple philosophy. He wants to keep the guys ahead of Van Slyke and Bonds off base.

* Pitching as defense: The Braves and Pirates are the two best defensive teams in the National League, and Pendleton says that has as much to do with the mound as it does the field.

"I think defense starts with pitching," Pendleton said. "And I think we've got that here. We don't beat ourselves, but the Pirates definitely won't beat themselves, either."

* Otis and Deion: The Braves won't have Lonnie Smith starting and leading off this year. Nixon stuck around for the entire season, and his speed and annoying presence at the top of the order transforms the Braves' offense into an eight-cylinder machine.

Sanders' availability is, as always, questionable. He hasn't released his schedule for the week yet, but he will be here for the first two games.

"He's a lethal weapon," Cox said. "I think he's only played in about two games the last month, and I saw where he limped off the field yesterday in the Falcons' game. But we talked to the Falcons' training staff, and they said he was still the fastest guy out there."

NL playoffs

Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Atlanta Braves (*-if necessary) TV: Channels 11, 9

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)

Today: at Atlanta, 8:39

Tomorrow: at Atlanta, 3:07

Friday: at Pittsburgh, 8:37

Saturday: at Pittsburgh, 8:37

Oct. 13: at Atlanta, 8:37*

Oct. 14: at Atlanta, 8:26*

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