Pirates, Braves set out to heal old wounds


ATLANTA -- The ache of "almost" is everywhere. It can b heard in Atlanta manager Bobby Cox's voice, cracked by three decades of baseball and the singular hurt of the 1991 World Series.

It can be seen in the mournful eyes of Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland, haunted by a dozen seasons of minor-league managing and consecutive disfigured autumns of National League Championship Series shortcomings.

Charlie Leibrandt can still see Kirby Puckett's home run in World Series Game 6. Lonnie Smith replays the Game 7 decoy at second base in his mind.

Barry Bonds wears his career postseason average of .156 like a badge of dishonor. The image of 18 straight zeros on the scoreboard still do their macabre dance in the minds of the Pirates.

There has been, in short, more than enough "almost" for the Pirates and Braves. Redress is at hand. Doug Drabek vs. John Smoltz. Tonight, 8:39 p.m. Here.

"Last year, was kind of like a mission," said Smoltz, the Atlanta right-hander. "We had nothing to lose, and we went at it kind of inexperienced and learned a great deal. I think this year we are approaching it like this is what we are supposed to be doing."

Leyland looked at it slightly differently, saying: "There's anxiety, there's competitive spirit. But we don't have anything to prove to anybody but ourselves."

The credentials of each club are unquestioned for this rematch of a series that went seven games last year before Atlanta earned a spot in the World Series against Minnesota. The Braves finished first in the National League in pitching this season, the Pirates third. The Pirates scored more runs than any other club in the National League; the Braves were third.

Both clubs have melded the contributions of stars -- Bonds and Andy Van Slyke and Doug Drabek for Pittsburgh; Terry #i Pendleton, David Justice, Tom Glavine for Atlanta -- with the essential everyday ingredients of sound defense and role-player production.

"Hey, we played seven games last time around," said Leyland. "And you can't play eight."

The inevitable mind games began yesterday, with Cox trying to sound convincing about his gifted but recently suspect starting pitching and trying to fully explain why Smoltz is the selection to start the first, fourth and seventh games (if the seventh game is necessary) against a club that would appear to be more vulnerable to left-handed pitching.

Meanwhile, Drabek, who along with Bonds will be a free agent after the season, tried to play down the undeniable sense of desperation for the Pirates to win.

"I don't know if we were the underdogs last year and are the favorites this year, it depends on what you've been reading," said Cox. "We have been able to tune Smoltz up, and he's pitched well, dominantly in fact.

"We are going to have seven guys in our bullpen, including Leibrandt, a 15-game winner, and Pete Smith, a guy who has been successful every time he's started. We can go right to these guys if something happens to one of our starters. We can also do a lot of matchups. It makes us stronger."

Only the strongest do survive in the crucible of October baseball. Errors are unforgivable, bad starts often irreparable, big bats are pitched around. But clubs don't come much more resilient than the Pirates or deeper than the Braves.

On Atlanta, first baseman Sid Bream's defense and experience can be traded for Brian Hunter's explosiveness; shortstop Jeff Blauser's bat can do damage, and then Rafael Belliard's hands as a defensive replacement can cradle triumphs safely to conclusion. Outfielder Ron Gant has power, and Lonnie Smith has postseason magic. And there are endless speed options for Cox, with Otis Nixon and Deion Sanders available.

"I think Nixon could be the key, if he can get on and get the pitchers worrying," said Pendleton, who spent the season following Nixon's leadoff bunts and stolen bases with run-scoring hits. "We won't beat ourselves. I think defense starts with pitching, and we've got that."

Leyland, who has had the favored force in the last two NLCS encounters, enters his latest with the far more rough-edged outfit. He's got a knuckleball-throwing converted first baseman (Tim Wakefield) and a reclamation project (Danny Jackson) as his No. 2 and No. 3 starters. He's got no bona fide regular leadoff man. He's got a bullpen that well might have led the majors in the unofficial category of crushing home runs allowed.

"We've got weapons, a lot of people who helped us get here," said Leyland. "I can't tell you what is going to happen, but I can tell you that there's nobody in Pittsburgh that has been %o embarrassed or upset that we haven't won it yet. We'll have to see how it goes, but I can tell you there's no more pressure on us than on any of the other clubs."

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. 11: at Pittsburgh, 8:37*

Oct. 13: at Atlanta, 8:37*

Oct. 14: at Atlanta, 8:26*

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