Pressure cooks Braves, after years at top


PHILADELPHIA -- Outside the visitors' clubhouse, you could hear the Phillies going berserk, as John Kruk skated on his spikes down the runway. They hugged and wept and there was so much champagne around, the Phillies used it as shampoo.

On the other side of the door, the Atlanta Braves undressed -- quiet, but, surprisingly, not crushed. There were no tears, no self-torture. The Braves were too burnt out for that.

"It's been three years, three long years, and there are a lot of tired guys in here," pitcher John Smoltz said. "I mean, when you're not just the favorite, but the heavy favorite, everyone is ready for you. Everyone attacks you. No one is afraid of you. It's not easy to keep playing like that, game after game, year after year."

On and on, Smoltz talked about the exciting summer, about 104 wins, about catching, then holding off the Giants. After a while, it finally made sense: The Braves' playoff was the final weekend of the regular season, sweeping the Rockies and breaking the Giants' hearts. How else to explain Atlanta's three straight losses in the NLCS except to say the adrenaline was gone?

More and more, it seems Mark Lemke's foul ball in the ninth inning of Game 5 cost the Braves the pennant. They were unable to mount another attack on the Phillies -- paralyzed after Len Dykstra's homer in the 10th inning Monday, and useless against Tommy Greene in Game 6 last night, 6-3.

The Braves loved the pressure and made it their ally for three straight years. But ultimately they were defeated by it. You saw the exhaustion as early as the third inning last night, when Otis Nixon and Jeff Blauser both struck out with Lemke in scoring position. Nixon waved pathetically at Greene's high-and-outside fastball, and Blauser was overpowered by a 3-2 slider that turned the Vet into a rock concert.

Actually, the only real chance the Braves had was a realization by the Phillies that they weren't supposed to have gotten this far -- that one of the most enormous upsets in baseball was almost complete. Funny thing, pressure: It can often slay the team with the advantage, especially a team that reminded you of Animal House.

The Phillies were soft and fat and bearded and insane, and the Braves-in-five and Braves-in-six sentiment was so strong, so prevalent, even Phillies GM Lee Thomas said, "I was starting to have some doubts in the recesses of my mind. I wondered if people knew something about my team that I didn't."

But there Len Dykstra was before the game, loose as ever at the batting cage, taking target practice on the turf with his tobacco juice. "We're gonna win this thing, dude," he said. "And I'm gonna be the MVP."

Dykstra was only half-right, because Curt Schilling won the award. But Lenny was in the middle of the Phillies' first two-run rally, bouncing a single to right and later scoring on Darren Daulton's ground-rule double into the right-field corner. That was the first tipoff that Greg Maddux wouldn't be invincible, and really, that's all the Phillies needed to know.

They nailed Maddux for two more runs in the fifth inning, two more in the sixth, Greene all the while throwing 92 mph, then 93, even reaching 94 on the gun. David Justice had no choice but to admit "we just got outplayed."

Terry Pendleton nodded and said: "You can look for all the reasons you want why we lost. The reason is in the other clubhouse. They played better in these six games."

Somehow, the Braves still think they're the best team in the National League, and wanted another chance at the Toronto XTC Blue Jays to prove they could conquer anyone in the major leagues, too.

But the weight. . . so much weight. It's like Smoltz said, "It was like we had to play perfect baseball all the time."

Now the Phillies know what life was like for the Braves in 1991 -- exciting and new, where any postseason game made for great theater. By 1992, the Braves came a little closer. By 1993, they had actually improved even more, but suddenly The Chop wasn't new anymore, the Indian war chant got tired, and regular-season games were like calisthenics for October.

Of course, someday the baseball universe will get tired of the Phillies, too -- tired of Kruk's gut, or the way Lenny's cheek swells obscenely from the chewing tobacco, or the anarchy Mitch Williams brings to most ninth innings.

But for now, the Phillies are our new toy. The way they splashed around the room, hydroplaning on champagne, reminded you of the Mets when they were young and innocent. But they went down fast in the '90s, and now the Braves have to wonder if they've peaked, too.

By midnight, the clubhouse had become a buffet table of human depression. Smoltz sat down to finish tying his shoes, realizing there was no need to hurry any more.

"It's going to be a frustrating off-season," he said, as outside, the Phillies claimed October as their own.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad