It has been two years since Joe Carter's dramatic home run ended the last World Series, which is one of the reasons it was so important for baseball's best two teams to meet in the 91st Fall Classic.
The Cleveland Indians won 100 games in a shortened season and were widely recognized as the superteam of 1995. The Atlanta Braves were the winningest team in the National League, and they made short work of imposing teams from Colorado and Cincinnati in the first two tiers of the sport's new playoff format.
Maybe it would have been fun to have the Rockies or Seattle Mariners, but only this matchup was certain to be worth the wait. It has been labeled the "Politically Incorrect" World Series -- and Native American groups plan demonstrations to protest the improper use of Indian imagery by both clubs. But in purely competitive terms, it couldn't be more right.
Perennial Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux will take the mound for the Braves tonight in Game 1 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, facing one of the toughest postseason pitchers in the history of the game, Orel Hershiser.
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The Indians will be making their first appearance in the World Series since 1954. The Braves are in for the third time in five years, but they will be trying to avoid becoming known as the Buffalo Bills of baseball. Here's how the teams match up:
Braves first baseman Fred McGriff is one of the most imposing power hitters in the NL, and the bad news for Indians fans is he never really took a big swing during the NLCS. He batted .438 with three singles and four doubles, but doesn't figure to go hungry forever -- even against a tough Cleveland pitching staff. The Indians will start designated hitter Eddie Murray at first base in Atlanta, even though he has played just 18 games at first base this year, and go with either Paul Sorrento or Herbert Perry when they play under AL rules. Either way, Murray is going to be in the lineup and he still is an imposing force at 39. It might be even if the Indians had any left-handed starters, but the left-handed McGriff has a chance to be a very prominent player in this series. Advantage: Braves.
Indians second baseman Carlos Baerga is one of those rare players who can do almost anything. He hits for average and power, produces runs and even steals a few bases. He's batting .359 during the postseason. If he has a weakness, it's on $H defense, but he is not a liability. Braves second baseman Mark Lemke has a lot of postseason experience, but it didn't show in a couple of key situations during the NLCS and he is batting .189 in the postseason. Advantage: Indians.
Cleveland has soon-to-be third-time Gold Glove winner Omar Vizquel, who doesn't hit much but is considered the American League's answer to Ozzie Smith. The Braves lost Jeff Blauser for much of the NLCS with a deep thigh bruise and he could be taken off Atlanta's World Series roster. Manager Bobby Cox was going to assess Blauser's workout last night and make a decision today. Blauser is 0-for-10 in this postseason and is coming off a bad offensive year (.211). Defensive specialist Rafael Belliard could see significant playing time. Advantage: Indians.
Tough call. The Braves got a scare last night when Rookie of the Year candidate Chipper Jones was hit on the upper lip by a ball that bounced off the outfield wall. But aside from a puffy lip, he is fine, which is a relief to Atlanta. Jones had 23 home runs and 86 RBIs during the regular season and played like a 10-year veteran in the divisional series and the NLCS, hitting .412. But Cleveland's Jim Thome doesn't exactly fade into the background, with a .314 regular-season average and three postseason home runs. Jones is the better defensive player. Advantage: Braves.
Cleveland's Albert Belle is the most dangerous hitter in the game, and he had 50 home runs and 52 doubles in a short season to prove it. Made some ugly plays in left field during the ALCS against Seattle, but was playing on a sprained ankle. The Braves' situation is muddled. Ryan Klesko should play against the all-right-handed Indians rotation -- 20 of his 23 home runs during the regular season came against right-handers -- but NLCS MVP Mike Devereaux may get some time because of his superior defensive skills. Advantage: Indians.
Indians center fielder Kenny Lofton easily could have been ALCS MVP after hitting .458 in the series and coming up big in several key situations. He'll give Braves pitchers a lot to think about. Braves center fielder Marquis Grissom is dangerous, too, with 16 hits and a .400 average in eight postseason games, but he isn't as unsettling as Lofton and he isn't quite as flashy with the glove. Advantage: Indians.
Braves veteran David Justice was hobbling on a bruised right knee going into the NLCS, then was hit by a batting practice line drive before Game 4. He has struggled during the postseason (.250, 1 RBI), but doesn't figure to remain quiet forever. Cleveland's Manny Ramirez is coming off a spectacular season, but he seemed a little cowed by the playoff pressure. Advantage: Braves.
Atlanta's Javy Lopez may be the catching superstar of the future. He won't play tonight because Maddux prefers to throw to veteran Charlie O'Brien, who hit a big home run in the playoffs. Indians catcher Sandy Alomar probably will share time with veteran Tony Pena, who came up big late in the ALCS. Advantage: Braves.
The Braves open with perennial Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux and the Indians answer with Orel Hershiser, looking to improve his 7-0 record in postseason play. The Braves follow with three-time 20-game winner Tom Glavine, tough postseason competitor John Smoltz and -- if needed -- left-hander Steve Avery. The Indians are expected to go with Dennis Martinez on Sunday and Charles Nagy in Game 3. The Braves rotation has the bigger reputation, but it also will have the tougher assignment. Advantage: Braves.
Cleveland closer Jose Mesa rewrote the record book with his string of 38 consecutive successful save opportunities. Manager Mike Hargrove uses young Julian Tavarez (10-2) and veterans Eric Plunk and Paul Assenmacher in setup situations. Mark Wohlers emerged this year as the Braves' closer and has pitched in seven of the club's eight postseason games. Late-season re-acquisition Alejandro Pena and sinkerball pitcher Greg McMichael will set him up. Advantage: Indians.
The Indians didn't win 100 games during the regular season with mirrors. Atlanta can match anyone pitch for pitch, but the Braves present a far less threatening offensive attack. That figures to be the difference, unless Maddux and Glavine can take their postseason performance to a higher level. Prediction: Indians in six.
Cleveland Indians vs. Atlanta Braves
Game 1: Tonight, 7:20, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, chs. 2, 7
Starters: Indians' Orel Hershiser (19-6, 3.53) vs. Braves' Greg Maddux (21-2, 1.79)
:. Note: Pitchers' records include postseason