Lopez catches attention with clutch playoff hits His three homers, 7 RBIs help Braves reach Series

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Braves had returned home earlier this week, having cut a game off what had been a 3-1 deficit to the St. Louis Cardinals in their best-of-seven National League Championship Series. Greg Maddux was scheduled to pitch Game 6. The big news, however, was that Javy Lopez was going to catch.

It was big news because Eddie Perez had been Maddux's personal catcher for much of his four-year run as the league's best pitcher. And it was big news because when Maddux had been rocked for five runs in the eighth inning of Game 2, including a grand slam by Gary Gaetti, Lopez had replaced Perez behind the plate.

"As long as Dog [Maddux] has a day to prepare, it doesn't matter who catches," Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said a couple of days before the game. "As long as he can visualize the target Javy sets, he'll be fine."

The target for Maddux and the other Atlanta pitchers is no longer just a catcher's mitt. Largely because of the job Lopez did against the Cardinals, both in handling what is widely considered the best pitching staff in baseball and continuing his amazing run of postseason hitting, the Braves are focused squarely on something bigger.

Their second straight World Series title.

Their place as the team of the decade.

When the Braves open defense of their title tonight at Yankee Stadium, Lopez still will not be the focus of attention. Not with superstar-in-the-making third baseman Chipper Jones. Not with five Cy Young awards -- six if you include the one John Smoltz will win this year -- among the pitching staff. But Lopez is doing his best to barge into the spotlight.

"Javy came into his own this postseason," Tom Glavine said after the Braves beat the Cardinals, 15-0, in Game 7 on Thursday night in Atlanta.

After putting up solid numbers in his first three full seasons in Atlanta, Lopez's statistics in the postseason have star quality.

In helping the Braves sweep the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Division Series and storm back against the Cardinals, Lopez was a combined 15-of-29 with five doubles, three home runs and seven RBIs.

He started the postseason with a game-winning home run against the Dodgers in Game 1. He started the NLCS with a game-winning single against the Cardinals in Game 1. He hit another home run and a double in Game 5's 14-0 victory. He added another run-scoring double in Game 6, and a double and a home run in Game 7.

"I don't look at myself as a star," said Lopez, who was named the NLCS MVP. "I consider myself a guy who does the job quietly."

For much of his career in Atlanta, Lopez was the guy who was overlooked when things were going well and overanalyzed when they weren't, especially where the team's pitchers were concerned. It didn't help that Maddux liked throwing to Perez, or that Lopez's offensive abilities were often thought to be mostly a byproduct of the rest of the team's lineup.

"He came up here in a tough situation, a young catcher with the best pitching staff in baseball," said Glavine. "If we don't do well, the finger is pointed at him. When he came up, we knew about his offense. So he's got to worry about two things -- catching us and staying an offensive threat. He's come a long way calling games. We knew he was an offensive threat, but it won't be too long before he's a well-rounded catcher."

The appreciation of Lopez's defensive abilities might come one day, but not yet. He threw out a modest 25.4 percent of those trying to steal this season, and had 11 passed balls. It's still the offensive numbers that stand out: a .282 average in 138 games this season, with 23 home runs and 69 RBIs.

"He's always been a great clutch hitter," said Perez, who signed the year before Lopez did (out of Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1987) and has been his backup for most of their careers. "When we won the Double-A championship [in Greenville, S.C.] in 1992, Javy got most of the big hits."

Asked about his postseason hitting prowess, Lopez shrugs and smiles.

"I've been very lucky," said Lopez, whose contract runs out after the Series and who could be one of the most sought-after free agents. "I keep hitting and hitting. It's nothing I can explain."

It is no longer a matter of luck. Nor does it need much explanation.

It is simply a player who is about to become a star on baseball's biggest stage.

Even in Atlanta, that's big news.

Pub Date: 10/19/96

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