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December 06, 2001

Southern swan song?
By Dan Patrick

When you think of the Atlanta Braves in 2001, you think of the team with 10 straight division titles and five NL pennants since 1991. The strike-shortened season of 1994 was the only year they didn't win their division -- finishing six games behind Montreal.

Tom Glavine
In 1991, Tom Glavine was 20-11 with a 2.55 ERA (in 2001, his numbers are 16-7, 3.57).
The Braves won at least 94 games in each full season during that stretch; at 88-74, they didn't come close to that this year. Is this team on a downturn?

Still, don't underestimate those 10 straight division titles. It's never been done before, in any sport.

We just take for granted that this team will make the playoffs. The heart of the pitching staff -- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz -- has been doing it a long time. Has age caught up with these guys? Maddux lost his last six decisions (although he pitched well in his season finale), and Smoltz is trying to rejuvenate his career in the bullpen.

The Braves used to stockpile. They were never afraid to go out and get someone for the postseason run. But instead of going after a Fred McGriff -- who was too pricey for them -- they got Julio Franco (who hasn't played in the majors since 1999) and Rey Sanchez (who amounts to a backup shortstop). They brought in Ken Caminiti, who's playing on fumes.

These moves scared no one.

Still, it comes down to pitching. The Braves led the NL in ERA, so they still have it. They're doing it with smoke and mirrors on offense, yet the pitching is still there. But does it scare opponents these days? Probably not.

For years, we took for granted that the Braves would be a playoff team. We saw some of their old drama against the Mets with Brian Jordan's ninth-inning grand slam. But how much do they have left? This is supposed to be their month, but I don't think we can make reservations like we used to. It used to be you knew you were going to Atlanta for at least one round of the postseason, if not two or even three.

They may have gotten a break in facing the Astros, who have sort of stumbled into the postseason. Wade Miller might be Houston's only truly healthy starting pitcher. If the Braves had drawn Arizona, I think an 0-2 deficit would have happened in a flash (as in Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson).

I don't know if they're actually passing the torch, but the Braves seem to be playing old now. They've made it to the postseason endlessly and supplied some drama, but they've usually been bridesmaids -- except for 1995, when they beat the Indians. The Braves started their run by being part of one of the most exciting World Series ever, falling to the Twins in '91. Since then, they've played great baseball but have just one championship to show for it.

An exciting Astros team is in the postseason. How far will Mark McGwire and the Cardinals go? What about the D-Backs with Johnson, Schilling and Luis Gonzalez? There's no sense that somebody has to "go through Atlanta" to get to the World Series, despite the franchise's decade of dominance. After all, the Braves usually clinch pennants in August, not October.

There's no sense that somebody has to "go through Atlanta" this year to get to the World Series, despite the franchise's decade of dominance.

In '91 they were the lovable Braves. They've had the tomahawk chop, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda in the stands, Deion Sanders, Glavine, Smoltz, Leo Mazzone, Bobby Cox -- a nucleus that stayed together. Maddux came along in 1993; they were a team you couldn't root against.

Aside from Deion, perhaps, the Braves didn't have a player you could call controversial. For the most part, they were squeaky clean, like they just came out of Mayberry.

Then John Rocker came along. But you can't pin this all on Rocker, though he was supposed to be the reason they couldn't make the next step. Well, Rocker is gone and you still wonder what the postseason hopes are for this team. Is this the end of us looking at the Braves as the perennial title contender? It may be, but I'd wait and see. The heart of that team still beats pretty strongly. The heart of that team has won 10 straight division titles. And I repeat that because I don't think I'll be saying that about another team any time soon.

Can they capture lightning in a bottle and do what the Yankees did last year? After a lackluster finish to the 2000 season, the Yankees woke up in the playoffs and won another World Series. I don't see it happening, frankly. I don't think the Braves' lineup or pitching is as good as the 2000 Yankees. The folks in Atlanta are probably looking at an overhaul. They could get real good again in a hurry if they make the right deal in trading Andruw Jones or Kevin Millwood. Don't forget: Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux are all younger than Roger Clemens.

The crossroads this team is at isn't that surprising, though, when you think about it. All good things come to an end.

Ask Ted and Jane.

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