These are not your son's Atlanta Braves. These Braves are different, they are tougher, they are better -- perhaps the best Braves team during their phenomenal 12-year run. They might not be the favorites, not even from their own league, but the Braves can win the World Series.
|John Smoltz anchors the best bullpen in the game.|
They can win because they have John Smoltz
, arguably the best closer in the game. He is the best closer the Braves have had since their dominance began in 1991. Closing in the postseason certainly is about stuff, but mostly it's about courage, about standing on someone else's mound in the ninth inning, and not being afraid. Smoltz isn't afraid of anything. There is no more competitive guy in the big leagues than him. He wants to be on your mound with the game on the line. He has been in similar situations as a starter -- Game 7 in 1991, for instance -- and done wonderfully. He always thinks he's the best man for the job.
The Braves can win because they have the best bullpen in the National League, the best bullpen they've ever had. All-Star Mike Remlinger
(7-2, 1.96) is as good a setup man as there is the game; he brings the ball to Smoltz. The middle men -- Chris Hammond, Darren Holmes, Kerry Ligtenberg, Tim Spooneybarger -- bring the ball to Remlinger. Until this year, Hammond hadn't won a game since 1997. Now he is 7-2 with a 1.01 ERA in 71 1/3 innings. Atlanta's middle relievers (those combined innings pitched before the eighth) are 8-1 with an ERA around 2.50. The bullpen will get an additional boost in the postseason from the rotation with rookie Damian Moss or Jason Marquis, each of whom has great stuff.
The Braves win because they have Kevin Millwood
(17-6, 3.02), who is the pitcher he was in 1999, which means he's terrific. He has won 15 of his last 17 decisions. With Greg Maddux
(who is throwing very well), Tom Glavine
and Millwood, the Braves can match the front three of any team in the league. With Millwood back, and with the way the bullpen is throwing, the Braves aren't as dependent as they've been in previous years on Maddux and Glavine. If those two stumbled in the postseason, that was usually it for the Braves. That's not the case now.
The Braves can win because they have Gary Sheffield
. Lack of offense is the biggest reason why Atlanta has won only one World Series in 10 postseason trips. They've had too many games of three or fewer runs. It's still questionable if they have enough pop at first base, and if third baseman Vinny Castilla
is going to hit, but with Sheffield, they have one of the game's best hitters who can hit the game's best pitchers. In other years, if Chipper Jones
didn't hit, the Braves didn't have enough. Now they have the best 3-4 hitters they've had in the last 12 years. There will be no pitching around Jones with Sheffield hitting behind him.
The Braves can win because they have shortstop Rafael Furcal
, who was injured during the 2001 postseason. He brings speed to the top of the order, which they badly needed last season. How far the Braves go in the playoffs depends somewhat on how well Marcus Giles
does at second base. He has played much better defensively, and remains an offensive threat.
The Braves can win because there is a toughness about them that perhaps has been missing in recent years. Maybe it comes from Smoltz factoring in many more games than he did as a starter. Maybe it comes from Sheffield, who won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997, bringing more of a presence to the middle of the order. Maybe it comes from being a more resilient team, a more creative team, one that has gotten unexpected contributions from Hammond and Matt Franco
, who is hitting .326 with 30 RBIs in 181 at-bats.
The Braves can win because they romped through the East, they can rest their starters down the stretch and they can set up their rotation for the playoffs. Maddux is more rested than he usually is at this time, which should make him stronger in October. The Braves have the best record in the league, which means home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.
It will be a long, hard journey, but the Braves can win the World Series.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.