Another year brings yet another title to Atlanta
by Alan Schwarz
I've never been much of a procrastinator. I rarely put off till tomorrow what can be worried about today, so with that in mind, I would like to file the following column one year in advance:
ATLANTA—From their champagne-soaked home clubhouse inside Turner Field, the 2005 Braves celebrated yet another National League East championship, their 14th straight since 1991.
Most prognosticators had figured the Braves' run would end after the club lost slugger J.D. Drew, innings-eater Russ Ortiz and several other players last offseason. But the threesome of general manager John Schuerholz, manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone once again withstood those losses to prove that, year after year, they know more than the preseason pundits.
"Harold Reynolds wasn't good enough to play for me back in '89," Schuerholz said with a laugh, "so what makes you think I care what he says on TV?"
The Braves clinched the division title and playoff berth with Mike Hampton's 6-2 win over the 36-117 Mets, who took another step toward challenging their franchise's all-time worst winning percentage of .250 back in 1962. (The good news for the Mets was that the righthander for whom they traded current Devil Rays ace Scott Kazmir last July, Victor Zambrano, finally made his first start of the season after persistent elbow trouble.) The second-place Phillies, the consensus NL East favorite entering this season, beat Livan Hernandez and the Washington Senators 7-2 but remain nine games back with eight games to play.
"I don't understand why every spring people keep saying we're done," said carousing Atlanta veteran Chipper Jones, who has bounced back and forth between third base and left field with free-agent signee Troy Glaus playing third and first. "Baseball loves tradition, right? Well, this tradition hasn't stopped yet."
Like they have many times during a division dominance unprecedented in major sports history, the Braves began the season somewhat unimpressively, lending credence to the doomsayers. But yet again they heated up in July and August to distance themselves from competition that couldn't keep pace.
The run was keyed by the two starters Schuerholz acquired to shore up the rotation after Ortiz signed with the Angels. Righthander Kris Benson, the Atlanta-area native who spurned the Mets for his hometown team, went 8-2, 2.11 during those two months under Mazzone's tutelage. Fellow righthander Tony Armas Jr., acquired from the Senators in a July 31 deal for prospects Chuck James and Josh Burrus, has gone 5-2, 1.91 since.
"I couldn't give a mosquito's behind what people say about my pitchers," Mazzone said. "They just go out and do their jobs. Better than the other guys, usually."
As stark as the changes to the rotation have been—only three years ago, the Atlanta rotation featured Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Kevin Millwood—the offense experienced its share of major changes as well.
One year ago, the Braves won despite losing Javy Lopez and Gary Sheffield thanks in large part to Drew, who exploded into one of the best all-around players in baseball. When Drew left after one season to sign his six-year, $88 million contract with the Dodgers, Schuerholz shored up most of the loss by signing Glaus, whose shoulder injury with Anaheim last year disguised his potential for 2005.
Glaus' shaky defense at third base has led him to share time between that position and first, where he has played against lefthanders. (This arrangement allowed top prospect Andy Marte to develop in Triple-A.) Glaus batted .265-31-87 and protected Jones in the cleanup spot. The lineup also has benefited from the breakout season of 27-year-old second baseman Marcus Giles, who is hitting .320-22-108, adding Gold Glove-caliber defense to become a chic MVP candidate.
"Troy has really helped us at two positions," Cox said. "With (Adam) LaRoche, Charlie Thomas and some other guys, it helps with the matchups." Added Schuerholz, shaking his head, "I really wasn't worried about the offense at all."
Few baseball onlookers shared Schuerholz' confidence. For each of the past five or six seasons, other teams' moves made more news and created more buzz. This year it was the Phillies, who after breaking the bank for third baseman Adrian Beltre and center fielder Steve Finley—plus wooing manager Mike Hargrove out of retirement to replace firebrand Larry Bowa—became the popular favorite to finally dethrone Atlanta.
It still wasn't enough. As the Phillies' pitching broke down in the hot summer, Mazzone's staff stayed remarkably consistent. His no-name bullpen also stepped up after the season-ending rotator-cuff tear of John Smoltz, who had been the last remaining tie to the 1991 Braves who started this magical run.
Of course, all but one of these division titles (1995) has ended with a disappointing loss in the playoffs, including Atlanta's NL Championship Series defeat to the Cardinals last October. But once again the Braves will still be in the postseason, while the rest of the NL East watches from home. Schuerholz, whose annual roster wizardry warrants a plaque in the Hall of Fame, couldn't help but smirk.
"You guys can write whatever you want," Schuerholz said. "As long as you're still writing it next year."
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.