NL Championship


The matchup

Cincinnati Reds

How they got here: The Reds swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the divisional series, defeating Japanese pitching sensation Hideo Nomo in the final game to reach the NLCS for the first time since 1990.

Why they're here: The balanced club combines a strong starting rotation, bullpen and offense. The breakthrough season by starter Pete Schourek was one of the keys. So were a big comeback by outfielder Ron Gant and the offensive leadership of Barry Larkin and Reggie Sanders.

What they've overcome: The Reds overcame a 1-8 start and the loss of pitching ace Jose Rijo to arm problems, and adjusted well after the trade that took popular Deion Sanders out of the clubhouse.

What must go right: Starters will have to go pitch-for-pitch with the stronger, more experienced Braves rotation. Hitters will have to find a way to solve perennial Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux at least once. The Reds need to win the first two games at home, though that will be a tough order if Maddux comes back on three days' rest in Game 2.

What an advance scout might say: Playing surface may be a key factor for the Reds, who were 68-36 on artificial turf during the regular season, but only 17-23 on grass. A possible four games on the quick Riverfront turf could help neutralize the Braves' pitching advantage, but before making World Series reservations, consider that the Braves won eight of 13 xTC head-to-head matchups and swept a three-game series at Riverfront during the regular season.

Who's hurting: The Reds have played most of the season without Rijo.

X-factor: Superstitious owner Marge Schott employed fur from her dead St. Bernard, Schottzie, to bring the Reds luck this year. Who knows what she might bring to the clubhouse for the NLCS?

Atlanta Braves

How they got here: The Braves won the NL East in a walkover and defeated the wild-card Colorado Rockies in four games in the best-of-five divisional series.

Why they're here: They have the most dominating pitcher in baseball in soon-to-be four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, and their No. 2 starter, Tom Glavine, would be No. 1 on about 25 other teams. Atlanta also has an explosive offense, and proved it by averaging nearly seven runs in the divisional series. Four Braves hit 20 or more homers this year, and seven homered in double figures.

What they've overcome: The Philadelphia Phillies surprised everyone by getting off to a tremendous start. But there was little question the Braves eventually would emerge as the top team in the NL East, and there was little doubt they would get by the Rockies in the divisional series.

What must go right: The Braves need to win one of the two games at Riverfront, which should not be a particularly tall order if Maddux goes in Game 2. Otherwise, they just need to pick up where they left off Saturday, when they hammered the Rockies, 10-4, in the final game of the divisional series.

What an advance scout might say: The performance of late relievers Mark Wohlers and Alejandro Pena will be more important in this series, because the solid Reds staff could keep games tight into the late innings.

Who's hurting: Right fielder David Justice fouled a ball off his right knee Saturday night, but remained in the game, though his status is uncertain. Shortstop Jeff Blauser hurt his right ankle in Denver and injured it again Friday night and did not play Saturday. He is expected to be ready to play tonight.

X-factor: Glavine is an unknown quantity in the playoffs. He has a 1-4 record and 5.40 ERA in five previous NLCS starts, but has pitched well in the World Series (2-2, 2.08).

Prediction: Reds pitchers John Smiley and David Wells will be unable to contain the Braves' offense, but the Atlanta pitching is too good. There should be some exciting late-night finishes, but the Braves should win in six.

Atlanta Braves vs. Cincinnati Reds

/# (Best of seven; all times p.m.)

Day .. .. .. .. .Site .. .. .. .. .Time

Tonight . .. Cincinnati . .. .8:07

Tomorrow ... Cincinnati . .. .8:07

Friday . ... Atlanta .. .. ...8:07

Saturday .. Atlanta .. .. ...7:07

Sunday* .. .. .at Atlanta .. .. ...7:07

Oct. 17* .. Cincinnati .. ...8:07

Oct. 18* .. Cincinnati .. ...8:07

* -- If necessary


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