To finish 1st, Braves must hit it to 2nd


Here is a message for Chipper Jones, who is under the mistaken impression that the Atlanta Braves must play "four perfect games" to defeat the New York Yankees:

Hit it to second base!

That should be the Braves' rallying cry in the 1999 World Series. Hit it to Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, and watch the fans behind first dive for cover.

Even Little Leaguers understand the time-honored strategy of exploiting the opponent's weakest fielder.

Maybe Knoblauch's shaky defense won't be enough for the Braves to prevent the Yankees from winning their third world championship in four seasons. But it represents an obvious enough flaw.

Knoblauch, saved by the umpires on two critical misplays in the American League Championship Series, is an unfortunate symbol of a team that was invincible last season but looks vulnerable now.

The Yankees are still the Yankees, but don't let their 7-1 romp through the AL playoffs fool you. As usual, the Texas Rangers panicked at the sight of pinstripes. And if you remove Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra, the Boston Red Sox are the Detroit Tigers.

The '99 Braves might not be as good as the '93 Braves, '95 Braves or '97 Braves, especially without Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez and Kerry Ligtenberg. But in a seven-game series, they could be better than the '99 Yankees.

The Braves won more games than any other team in the majors this season. They've got home-field advantage, unlike in their '96 Series loss to New York. And they showed their mettle in the NL playoffs by winning a tough series against the Houston Astros and an even tougher series against the New York Mets.

Why should anyone consider them underdogs?

The Braves have appeared in four World Series this decade, and outscored their opponent in every one. Sporadic hitting and inconsistent relief pitching doomed them against Minnesota in '91, Toronto in '92 and the Yankees in '96. But now that few expect them to win, maybe the baseball karma is right for them to earn their rightful due as the Team of the '90s.

Their starting rotation is just as good as the Yankees', maybe better. Their closer isn't as reliable -- in fact, he's downright wacko -- but the rest of their bullpen might be deeper. And their lineup, though not without holes, can beat you in a number of ways.

The Yankees aren't exactly a wrecking ball offensively. They're batting only .237 in the postseason, and they defeated Boston with superior starting pitching, allowing only eight runs in their four victories.

Against left-handed pitching, the Yankees are particularly vulnerable -- they were only 19-14 against left-handed starters this season, and their batting average against right-handers was 24 points higher (.289-.265).

The Rangers lacked a left-handed starter, and the Red Sox's only lefty was the dismal Kent Mercker. The Braves, by contrast, will pitch Tom Glavine in games 1 and 5. They also can bring three lefties out of the bullpen -- Terry Mulholland, Mike Remlinger and John Rocker.

Left-handed hitters batted a healthy .267 off Glavine in the regular season, but he has returned to form in the postseason, with a 1.38 ERA in two starts. If he stays hot -- and if the Braves' lefty relievers can neutralize the Yankees' 3-4-5 hitters -- Atlanta will stand an excellent chance.

Consider: The left-handed-hitting Paul O'Neill batted 129 points higher against righties this season (.319-.190). Switch-hitter Bernie Williams batted 62 points higher (.359-.297), and left-handed Tino Martinez three points higher (.264-.261).

The Braves' problem, of course, will be breaking through against the Yankees' Big Three of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, David Cone and Andy Pettitte -- and that just slightly above-average Game 4 starter, Roger Clemens.

All except Clemens are accomplished postseason pitchers, but if the Yankees' starters have a weakness, it's that they're not especially adept at holding runners. That deficiency could be exploited by Gerald Williams, Otis Nixon and Andruw and Chipper Jones.

The Braves stole 148 bases in the regular season, more than any AL team. They're 18-for-22 in stolen-base attempts this postseason and went 6-for-6 against the Mets in the decisive Game 6. The Yankees, meanwhile, are 1-for-6 throwing out runners attempting to steal.

The losses of Galarraga and Lopez forced Atlanta to become more versatile in its attack. In a season marked by injuries and even inconsistency from Glavine and Greg Maddux, it would be fitting if the Braves demonstrated their resilience and resourcefulness on the biggest stage of all.

One thing is for certain -- their mental toughness should no longer be an issue, not after they won Game 3 against Houston in 12 innings and Game 6 against the Mets in 11. Three of their victories over the Mets were by one run, the other by two. Does that sound like a choke team?

Any portrayal of the Braves as baseball's version of the Buffalo Bills is absurd, but such conclusions are inevitable when a team loses three World Series and three League Championship Series in a span of seven postseasons.

Baseball can be hideously unfair, but the beauty of the sport is that things generally even out, except for a certain team from New England. Once and for all, it's time for the Braves to get the credit they deserve. They don't even need to hit it to second base. They're good enough to beat the Yankees on their own.

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