For the first time in a long time, a Braves fan looks forward the post-season.
10:45 AM, Oct 2, 2002 • By TERRY EASTLAND
OUR ESTEEMED web editor Jonathan Last asked me the other day to explain why I think the Braves, who open the divisional playoffs today against the Giants, will win the World Series this year. He asked me to do it since I'm a Braves fan, having followed the team since it played in County Stadium and fielded such immortals as Mathews, Aaron, and Spahn.
I'm having a hard time with the assignment. Prophecy is the work of television's political pundits. They can say X or Y or Z will happen, with total confidence, and not miss a beat the next day when they return to the set, their prophecies forgotten--if not also falsified--and read entrails once again. Baseball fans, aware that first base is not always to the swift, are reluctant to declare what will happen. And I won't.
What I can say is that the Braves are a better team than they were last year when they lost to the eventual World Series champ, Arizona, in the NLCS, 4-games-to-1. In fact, they are better than any Atlanta team going back to at least 1996, when the Braves blew a 6-0 lead to the Yankees in the fourth game of a World Series they led 2-games-to-1 and should have won. (Oh, did that one hurt.) The Braves are so much better this year that it can fairly be said for a change that they have a decent shot of chalking up the 11 postseason wins necessary to win the World Series.
The Braves are so much better for two reasons--a bullpen anchored by closer John Smoltz, and the bat swung by Gary Sheffield.
Until this year the Braves, designed for the long haul of the regular season, relied on a starting rotation that was the best in baseball. But never did they have a spectacular bullpen--precisely what you need to win five- and seven-game series against good teams. This year's bullpen is different. It is great, better even than the starting rotation, which is still plenty good. John Smoltz, who in 1996 won a Cy Young award as a starter, has become the best closer in baseball, having set the National League record for saves with 55. Five relievers, three of them with ERAs under 2.00, and one of those with an ERA under 1.00 (Chris Hammond, should you ask) are available for work before Smoltz even starts cranking. As was true of the great Yankees teams of recent years, if the Braves have a lead by the sixth inning, the game is effectively over.
Now to Sheffield. He came to the Braves during the winter in exchange for Brian Jordan. Jordan is an intense, clutch player that many Braves fans, myself included, hated to see traded. But I knew that Sheffield was also an intense, clutch player. And that, when you looked at his numbers, he would be more productive than Jordan. And so he has been, notwithstanding injuries that reduced his playing time. Batting third, Sheffield has made the offense better, from the top of the order to the bottom. And with Chipper Jones batting behind him, the Braves have two low-strikeout, high-average sluggers who can turn a game around in the late innings with one swing.
For the past few years I've not looked forward especially to the playoffs, knowing that the Braves lacked what it would take to win a World Series. Last year they barely won baseball's weakest division. I was pleasantly surprised when they knocked the Astros out in the first round. The year before, the Cardinals swept the Braves in a divisional series you knew Atlanta, which had faltered the final weeks of the regular season, wasn't up to winning. The year before that, the Braves, decimated by injuries, had no business making it to the World Series, though they did on a gift from the Mets (a bases-loaded ball-four that walked in the winning run). They were then swept by the Yankees.
I could go further back. But I won't, because this year, for the first time in a long time, there's reason to look forward. I won't say the Braves will win, only that I like their chances. A lot.
Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.