The Braves and Yankees meet for a rematch of the 1996 Fall Classic that propelled the Yankees back to prominence and established Joe Torre as one of the best managers in the game. Now, the Yankees are back in the World Series for the third time in four years and the stakes may be higher than ever.
The winner likely will be remembered as the team of the 90's, and why not? The Braves have appeared in every postseason since 1991 and would end the decade with two world championships, five National League pennants and eight division titles. The Yankees got a later start, but have appeared in the postseason every year since 1995 and -- with a victory -- would finish the decade with three world titles to just one for the Braves.
Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez is one of the cornerstones of the New York offensive attack, but has yet to be a major offensive force in this postseason. He had just two singles in the Division Series and three RBI in the five-game playoff against the Red Sox. Still, he is a consistent run producer who has averaged 119 RBI over the past five seasons, so he could pop at any time. The Braves counter with a first base platoon of Brian Hunter and Ryan Klesko, who filled in admirably for Andres Gallarago during the regular season, but combined for just two hits in the NLCS.
Braves starter Bret Boone put up strong all-around numbers during his first season with the club and was one of the offensive standouts (.474) in the Division Series victory over the Houston Astros. He didn't do much in the NLCS, but that could be said for a lot of guys in the Atlanta. Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch is the more accomplished hitter, but his unexplainably erratic defensive performance -- which figures to be magnified in the World Series spotlight -- has made him a clear liability in the field.
The Braves have no complaints about the performance of veteran shortstop Walt Weiss, who plays strong defense and had more hits in the NLCS than anyone in the Atlanta lineup except catcher Eddie Perez, but this category isn't even close. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is one of the most exciting and productive players in the sport, and has proven to be an extremely clutch postseason performer. Just look at the numbers. He led the Yankees with a .455 average in the Division Series and came right back to lead the club with a .350 average in the ALCS. His glove is as good as it gets, too. No contest.
Scott Brosius basked in the postseason spotlight a year ago, winning World Series MVP honors after a fabulous first season in pinstripes. This year has been a mild disappointment, but he delivered some big swings in the ALCS and remains a dangerous proposition at the far end of the Yankees lineup. Braves third baseman Chipper Jones is the best bet to be the National League MVP, but he has not been a major offensive force in the postseason. He has just two extra-base hits (both doubles) and two RBI in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Still, he's got the most upside potential, especially when he's swinging from the left side at Yankee Stadium.
Neither team is looking at a best-case scenario behind the plate. Braves backup Eddie Perez has been the starter since starter Javy Lopez went down with an injury in July, and he has filled in admirably -- especially in the postseason. He led the club with a .500 batting average (10 for 20) in the NLCS and leads the Braves with a total of 14 postseason hits. Yankees manager Joe Torre can toss a coin to decide between his two catchers, since veteran Joe Girardi and young Jorge Posada are each a combined 2 for 14 (.143) in this postseason. Girardi played very little during the regular season, but his role has increased because of his extensive (37 games) postseason experience.
The Yankees have all but turned left field over to up-and-coming Ricky Ledee, and he has not disappointed them this October. He's a combined 8 for 19 with six RBI in the first two rounds of the playoffs and has played well in the outfield. He went 6 for 10 in the 1998 World Series, his .600 average the highest ever by a rookie. When Ledee's not out there, Torre will go with either Shane Spencer or veteran Chad Curtis, neither of whom have had a significant impact on the postseason. The Braves went 39-14 down the stretch after moving Gerald Williams into the full-time leadoff role in August. He has been one of the club's steadiest hitters in the postseason, though at .250 that's not saying a whole lot.
Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams is recognized as one of the sport's great all-around players, and he has the $87 million contract to prove it. He's also been one of the truly clutch postseason players of the 1990s, with big LCS performances in 1996, '98 and again this year. He hasn't been quite so dominant in the World Series, at least not yet. Braves starter Andruw Jones is one of the brightest young players in the game, already in his third year as an everyday player and sixth year of professional ball at just 22. He was just 19 when he batted .400 with two homers and six RBI against the Yankees in the 1996 World Series.
Yankees veteran Paul O'Neill is playing with a fractured rib, suffered crashing the fence in a relatively meaningless game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays during the final weekend of the regular season. He still had six hits and a game-winning RBI in the ALCS against the Red Sox. Despite big career playoff numbers, still is waiting to make his mark on the Fall Classic (.163). Braves right fielder Brian Jordan is coming off a career year and celebrated it by dominating the Division Series (.471, 7 RBI). Drove in five more runs in the NLCS and might be the Braves hitter most likely to capture the World Series spotlight.
There was a time when this would not have been a tough call. The Braves have had baseball's best starting rotation throughout the '90s, but perennial Cy Young candidate Greg Maddux and rising star Kevin Millwood carried the club in 1999. Tom Glavine is having a fine postseason, which would figure to give the Braves a slight edge, but the outstanding playoff performances of Orlando 'El Duque' Hernandez (23 IP, 3 ER) and Andy Pettitte (14 2/3 IP, 3 ER) have counterbalanced the inconsistency of supposed staff ace Roger Clemens and made it too close to call. One thing is certain: Every game will feature a top-quality pitching matchup.
Trust us on this. Braves closer John Rocker will get most of the attention because of his on-going feud with New York baseball fans, but he wasn't automatic in the NLCS. He saved the first two games against the Mets, but gave up the game-winning hit in a save situation in Game 4. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is fast becoming a postseason legend, and with good reason. He has appeared in 28 postseason games and surrendered just two runs on the way to a 3-0 record, 11 saves and an amazing 0.42 ERA. Both clubs have solid setup relievers, and Braves manager Bobby Cox isn't afraid to call on his premier starters in postseason relief situations, but Rivera is the difference.
When the Series opens tonight at Turner Field, the Yankees will have two big-time run producers sitting on the bench. Designated hitters Chili Davis and Darryl Strawberry will have nothing to do but pinch hit in the first two games of the best-of-seven series, which will make it difficult for Braves manager Bobby Cox to outmaneuver Torre in the late innings. The Braves put most of their offensive clout on the field in every game, though Ryan Klesko presents an imposing threat off the bench when Brian Hunter starts at first base. The Yankees also have better depth behind the plate.
Braves manager Bobby Cox has guided his team to an amazing string of division titles and postseason appearances, which is a testament to his steady hand and great people skills. He will be managing in the World Series for the fifth time in 1990s, a record unmatched by anyone in any decade since Casey Stengel led the Yankees into the Fall Classic eight times in the 1950s. Yankees manager Joe Torre can't top that, but he has been the best manager in baseball since returning to the dugout in 1996. He's taken the Yankees to three World Series in those four seasons and presided over one of the greatest performances by a team in a single season.
The Yankees carry a century's worth of momentum into the final Fall Classic of the 1900s. They have the history, the tradition and the sometimes mystical good fortune to create -- in both the dugout and in the stands -- the expectation of great accomplishment. They also have a rested team that again has moved through the first two playoff series relatively unchallenged. What they don't have for the first time in any postseason series dating back to 1996 is the home-field advantage, but that will be a dead issue after they split the first two games in Atlanta. The Braves, meanwhile, enter the Series under intense pressure to validate their terrific decade with a second world title, but looked very beatable in the tough NLCS against the New York Mets.
Prediction: El Duque and Pettitte will come up big again and first baseman Tino Martinez will step up to carry the Yankees offense past the predominantly right-handed Braves rotation.
Yankees in six.