Jayson Stark
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Tuesday, June 20
Reality finally catching up to Braves

Here it comes -- the statistic that defines what baseball has become today: The Atlanta Braves have a 4.14 ERA. We repeat. The Atlanta Braves have a 4.14 ERA. This is not a misprint.

For 10 seasons, they've been the answer to the question: Can't anybody around here pitch anymore? For 10 seasons, they've been Sandy Koufax while everyone else has been Cardell Camper. For 10 seasons, they've set a standard that no other pitching staff could even comprehend, let alone match.

And now the Atlanta Braves have a 4.14 ERA. What's the world coming to, anyway?

Over the years
The Braves' team ERA over the last 10 seasons:
Year ERA
1991 3.49
1992 3.14*
1993 3.14*
1994 3.57
1995 3.44*
1996 3.52
1997 3.18*
1998 3.25*
1999 3.63*
2000 4.14*
*Led or leads the NL in that year.

"You know, it's a funny thing," says Tom Glavine. "We've got the second-best record in baseball. We're leading our division. And you get the sense around here we're not playing well. It seems like we've heard more about our pitching staff having a higher ERA than we're supposed to than we've heard about being in first place."

Of course, the Braves being in first place isn't news. The Braves are always in first place. The last time they didn't finish a season in first place, we're pretty sure Millard Fillmore was president. So their current place in the standings isn't going to shake up the lead story on SportsCenter.

But a 4.14 ERA -- now that's a new one. The last time the Braves finished a season with a team ERA over 3.63, it was 1990, and Glavine was surrounded in the rotation by the likes of Marty Clary and Joe Hesketh. So when the Braves have a 4.14 ERA, it's perceived like anyone else having a 6.14 ERA.

That's not real fair. And we know it's not real fair. But it's still a development that makes you wonder. What exactly does that number mean -- that 4.14 ERA?

Is it a commentary on the sport? Is it a commentary on this particular Braves team? Or is it a sign that the window of opportunity could be closing on a quasi-dynasty constructed around the greatest pitching staff of modern times?

And the answer is ... yes. To everything.

None of those developments would be considered insignificant. So let's examine all of those questions.

It's the sport, stupid
First off, you don't need to be Jose Lima to know it isn't safe to be a pitcher now -- any time, any place, any team. It may be safe if you're Pedro or a 6-foot-10 left-hander in Arizona. But it's a fallout zone for everyone else.

"OK, our ERA is over 4.00," says pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "But there's not a team in the National League with an ERA under 4.00. That, to me, is shocking."

Yeah, we might want to mention right here that even though the Braves have their highest ERA in a decade, they're also still leading their league in ERA. So it's all relative.

You think the Braves have troubles? The Yankees and Red Sox went into the weekend with the top two ERAs in the American League. The Yankees gave up 17 runs Sunday. The Red Sox gave up 22 Monday. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks had a lower ERA than the Braves going into Saturday, then allowed 33 runs in two games.

And those are the good pitching staffs. So what does all that tell you?

Kevin Millwood
Kevin Millwood's 5.40 ERA this year is nearly two runs higher than his career total.

"I think you have to change your thinking a little bit now," Glavine says. "You have to resign your thinking to the fact that you're going to give up a half a run or a run more a game than you used to. ... My thought process used to be that if I went seven innings and gave up three runs or less, we had a good chance to win. Now it's seven innings and four runs or less. You just adjust your thinking."

Glavine's ERA is up to 3.54 this year. Granted, that might look good to Sean Bergman. But it would be Glavine's third-highest in the last 10 years. Yet he looks at his strikeout numbers (83 in 104 1/3 innings -- way up over last year) and knows they're an indication that his stuff is "as good or better than it's been in three or four years."

"So obviously," he says, "I'm throwing the ball well, or I wouldn't have the strikeouts. But somewhere along the line, I'm giving up runs. And that's where you scratch your head and say, 'What's going on?' The tough thing for an established pitcher who has had success to guard against is thinking you've got to change things when no, you don't. You just say, 'That's the nature of baseball now.' "

And it is. But when you look more closely at this team, you also see it's not that simple.

They're not the same
They used to roll those Cy Youngs out there every night of the week. That doesn't happen anymore. Greg Maddux is 9-1. Glavine is 7-3. But Kevin Millwood is 0-4, 8.23, in his last six starts. Terry Mulholland is a valuable professional pitcher, but the league is hitting .307 against him. And the Braves are 7-2 when John Burkett starts -- but the league has batted .314 against him.

"At one time," Mazzone says, "we were four deep in aces. In fact, at one time, we were five deep. A couple of years ago, we had Millwood in the five-hole, when Denny Neagle was here. Now we're only two deep in aces, but we've still got five good ones in my mind. The difference is, this is the first time in 10 years we left spring training without one of our front liners. And we miss John Smoltz."

They used to seem impervious to all those breakdowns that afflicted all those other teams. Hundreds of other pitchers marched onto the disabled list. But Maddux and Glavine and Smoltz just kept marching to the mound. Not anymore. As Smoltz rehabs from Tommy John surgery, he's a reminder to his cohorts of their own mortality.

"I'll tell you what John was," Mazzone says. "John was the go-to guy when you had a little streak of not doing well. Something would start to build a little bit, and he could just put a halt to it. Not that the other guys can't. But I remember one year going to Montreal when we'd had a tough go of it for six or seven days, and he goes out there, strikes out 15 and here we go again. He was a guy who could rise up and elevate his game to a level that very few can reach when he's on. Well, we miss that."

They particularly missed it earlier this month, when they went through a turn of the rotation against the Blue Jays and Yankees in which the starters' ERA was an incomprehensible 12.95. And ever since, the ultimate rotation has had trouble righting the ship.

"A month ago, our ERA was almost under 3.00," Mazzone says. "And we said, 'Maybe we can get it in the 2.00's. Now it's four. But I'll say what I've always said: As long as these guys go to the post and do that for the whole season, we'll be back under (4.00)."

The fact is, though, for all the upbeat talk, it's very telling that the Braves are out there looking to upgrade their pitching. They could trade for a starter and move Mulholland to the bullpen. They could trade for a reliever. They could trade for both.

But even Glavine admits that with proven set-up men Rudy Seanez and Greg McMichael down for the year, "we can use some help."

"We're really in a position where we need to do something," Glavine says. "Everyone else in baseball needs pitching, too. But I know it's odd to hear that the Atlanta Braves -- the pitching team of the '90s -- needs help. Well, we're no different than anybody else. Over 162 games, we're going to have our glitches."

Except there is a difference between the Braves and everybody else. As well-rounded as they are offensively this year, "starting pitching has been the center of our wheel throughout this whole great run," Mazzone says. "And it still is."

So as the Braves look at their prognosis down the long baseball highway, it's not that complicated.

"It all depends on pitching," says Bobby Cox. "So you've gotta keep at it. When you've got great pitching and you start getting dinged up, you go get some more."

And they will. But even as they fill those holes, you can't help but ask:

Is the window closing?
Nobody wins forever. Nobody pitches forever. Look around. Check those box scores. In particular, check out those New York Yankees box scores. They're living proof.

They gave up 17 runs Sunday. They gave up 10 the day before that. They gave up 12 two days before that. In a span of 13 games, they allowed 10 runs or more in five of them.

Just as people dissect the Braves' numbers and wonder what they mean, the Braves look at those Yankees' numbers and ponder what they mean.

"I'm a firm believer that everything evens out over time," Glavine says. "And the last four years, they've had an awful lot of things go their way. So you wonder when their time will run out."

Then Glavine pauses and laughs at the irony of that remark -- because he has heard a variation of it someplace before.

"I know there are a lot of people wondering when our time is going to run out, too," he says. "But they've had more success at the end than we have. So maybe that's been the evening out for us -- at the end."

Yes, those endings haven't all been happy ones. But at least when those October heartaches faded, the Braves could always go to spring training the next year and know they had Maddux and Glavine and Smoltz to give them a shot at rewriting those endings when the next October came.

But now it's reasonable to ask: For how much longer? Glavine is 34. Maddux is 33. Smoltz faces a rehab of 12 to 18 months from as serious an operation as a pitcher can have. So how much longer can they keep this acehood up?

"I really think Tommy and Maddux can pretty much pitch as long as they want," Mazzone says. "I think they're in the middle of their careers -- both of them. I really do. Hell, their velocity is up. And with the touch they have and the knowledge they have and the ability they have to be able to pitch without maxing effort on every pitch out there, I think they can pitch themselves into the Hall of Fame.

"If they pitch five or six more years, they're both in there. And at their age, I think they can pitch effectively for quite some time. And I think Smoltzy will, too. He's already way ahead on his rehab."

And Leo Mazzone may be right, too. But you never know. And what happens if he's wrong? Those three starting pitchers are as responsible for the Braves' culture of winning as anyone. And how long, for that matter, will Cox and Mazzone be there to maintain the atmosphere that makes it all possible?

"One of the biggest things here," says Mulholland, "is having a manager and a pitching coach -- and a general manager -- who understand that culture, and what kind of effect it has on a ball club, and to have people in those positions who don't panic and aren't concerned with covering their own butts.

"My biggest concern is, when Bobby Cox does retire, does Leo stick around? Is he going to say, 'It's been a great run,' too? Those guys permeate an atmosphere of confidence. And they have confidence in their pitchers, because they know their pitchers can get them where they want to get to."

They know that because those pitchers have been getting them there for about as long as they can remember. And they still might get them there this year, too. But it's impossible not to recognize that they're now closer to the end of that great run than they are to the beginning. And that 4.14 ERA is at least a sign of that.

Maybe it's a little sign. Maybe it's a big sign. But you don't have to be a traffic cop to know it's never a good idea to ignore the signs.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

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