Yankees, Braves not done yet; N.Y., Atlanta figure to return to Series


NEW YORK -- The Atlanta Braves packed up quickly after their fourth straight loss to the world champion New York Yankees on Wednesday night. Maybe they didn't want the broom to hit them on the backside on their way out the door, or maybe they just wanted to get a head start on next season.

One way or the other, they probably will be back.

The Braves were no match for the Yankees, who settled that "team of the decade" debate faster than you can say Y2K, but they won more regular-season games than any other team and survived two playoff rounds without two of the most pivotal members of their offensive attack.

First baseman Andres Galarraga missed the entire season after being diagnosed with cancer last spring and power-hitting catcher Javy Lopez went down with a torn ligament in his right knee, leaving open the question of just how much better the Braves' offense would have been with both of them in the lineup.

Maybe they'll find out in 2000. No one can guarantee that either one will be an impact player next year, but general manager John Schuerholz is confident that the Braves will be better than ever.

"It's like signing two premier free agents," Schuerholz said, "but they're already on the payroll."

Of course, a lot depends on the pitching staff. The Braves dominated regular-season play in the 1990s because of their stable of premier starters, but a couple of the cornerstones of that Cy Young starting rotation performed below expectations this season. Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were not nearly as dominant as they have been in the past, but both rebounded to pitch well in the postseason.

The bullpen could be better, with talented reliever Kerry Ligtenberg expected back from a severe elbow injury to join hard-throwing closer John Rocker and promising Kevin McGlinchy.

"Call me crazy," said pitching ace Greg Maddux, "but I think we're going to be back here next year."

The Braves have to take their comfort where they can. They reached the postseason eight straight times, but won just one world title. Sure, there are 24 major-league clubs who didn't win any, but who could be happy to come away empty-handed four out of five times in the Fall Classic?

"Sure, we're disappointed we've only won one World Series championship," said Glavine, who came back from a severe stomach virus to pitch well in Game 3. "You want to win it every year. But when people throw around terms like loser and embarrassment, it gets to be absurd. We're all very proud of what we've accomplished here."

No other team won with such consistency in the '90s. The Yankees, meanwhile, didn't hit stride until 1995, but their three world titles in four years were enough to establish them -- without serious dispute -- as the most dominant team of the decade.

"By no means am I standing here with a Braves logo on my shirt embarrassed about what we've accomplished in the '90s," Glavine said. "No way. If you told me in 1990, after all the losing we did in the '80s, that we would have won as much as we did in this decade and would win one World Series, I'd have taken that without a doubt."

Maddux put it even more succinctly.

"You have to be good to lose that many World Series games," he said.

The Braves aren't going anywhere. They seem to find a way to upgrade the rotation each year and they figure to be among the top-payroll teams in baseball for many years to come. They got a stiff challenge from the New York Mets in the National League East this year, but should return in 2000 favored again to win the division.

"I think we'll be a better team next year than we are this year," said Braves president Stan Kasten.

Maybe it wouldn't have made any difference if Galarraga and Lopez had been in the lineup for the World Series. The Yankees have dominated postseason play the past two years, winning 22 of 25 games. Their 12 straight victories in the World Series -- dating back to the last four games of the '96 matchup against the Braves -- tied the all-time record.

The 1998 Yankees set an American League record with 114 regular-season victories and enhanced their legend with an 11-2 postseason. The 1999 version didn't come close to last year's regular-season victory total, but actually had a better postseason record (11-1).

"I played that team they had last year," said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones. "I didn't think I'd ever seen a ballclub stronger from one to 25 than they were. If it's possible, I think this team is better. They didn't win as many games in the regular season, but they were just as dominant in the postseason."

The Yankees also look like a lock to be back in the postseason next year, but there are questions. Will pending free-agent David Cone return? Will Roger Clemens ever be the old Roger Clemens again, his terrific performance in Game 4 notwithstanding? There will always be variables, but at least the Yankees have a full trophy case.

It can't be easy being the other team of the decade -- especially when the debate was so one-sided at the end -- but Smoltz figures that it's better than some of the other alternatives.

"Nobody talks about the '80s and nobody talks about the '70s," Smoltz said. "We created this [debate], no doubt, and it's a good creation because as a player you want this every year. There are tough questions at the end you have to answer, but that's what it's all about."

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