Their cool detachment has been replaced at times by actual emotion. Injuries and tribulations have erased their stale aura of perpetual favorites and given them a survivor's instinct that they never have seemed to need in the past. These do not appear to be the same Atlanta Braves who waltzed through the 1990s winning division titles but losing in October.
Tonight, in a 4-2 victory over the New York Mets in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, the Braves showed a few things--like team speed, bullpen depth and grit--that often had been missing from their formula, and one thing that has remained constant: solid pitching.
Four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux gave the Braves seven sparkling innings, closer John Rocker got the last four outs for the save and the Braves' traditionally shaky October offense scratched out single runs in the first, fifth, sixth and eighth innings to give them a 1-0 series lead in front of 44,172 at Turner Field--about 6,000 shy of a sellout.
Maddux "doesn't have all those trophies because he's lucky," said Mets Manager Bobby Valentine. "He's a terrific pitcher, and he made good pitches tonight when he had to."
Although this is the Braves' eighth consecutive year in the NLCS, they have advanced to the World Series only four times and won only once. In each of the past two seasons, the Braves lost Game 1 of the NLCS at home and went on to lose the series.
"What's happened the last two years--who cares?" Maddux said. "What matters is now."
Always loaded with exceptional starting pitching, always possessing a quality slugger or two, the Braves won tonight by doing all the little things right. Two runs were set up by sacrifice bunts, and another by a stolen base. Catcher Eddie Perez provided the third run with a solo homer off reliever Pat Mahomes.
Meanwhile, the Mets, who lost 9 of 12 games to the Braves during the regular season, did many little things wrong. They botched a suicide squeeze in the second inning, when pitcher Masato Yoshii whiffed on the bunt. Their league-best defense committed two errors. They scraped together only six hits.
The Mets understandably pitched Chipper Jones carefully--after he almost single-handedly pushed them to the brink of extinction in September--walking the Braves' MVP candidate three times. But it was the bottom of the Braves' lineup, Perez and Walt Weiss (3 for 4, 1 RBI), that did the damage.
The Braves tend to suffer annually around this time from a mysterious disappearance of their offense. In their previous 38 postseason games entering tonight--spanning four first-round series, three league championship series and one World Series (1996)--the Braves' offense had been held to three runs or fewer 19 times.
Those numbers began to spring to mind when the Braves' first three batters reached base in the first inning--leading Valentine to get Orel Hershiser up in the bullpen--but the Braves managed to score just one run.
But Gerald Williams drove home Weiss with an RBI single in the fifth, after Weiss led off the inning with a double, and Perez homered off Mahomes with two outs in the sixth, giving the Braves a 3-1 lead.
Mike Piazza, who missed the last two games of the first-round series against Arizona with a sore left thumb, returned to the Mets' lineup tonight but failed to get the ball out of the infield in four at-bats. His RBI groundout in the fourth gave the Mets their only run against Maddux, tying the score briefly at 1-1.
Much has been made about what the Braves lost this season, namely sluggers Andres Galarraga and Javy Lopez and closer Kerry Ligtenberg. But along the way, the Braves added a few facets and improved a few areas that had long been exposed as deficiencies this time of year.
Chief among them is their bullpen. Tonight, after Maddux was removed, left-hander Mike Remlinger got the first two outs of the eighth--against the top of the Mets' order, Rickey Henderson and Edgardo Alfonzo--then gave way to Rocker.
Rocker, a hulking, hard-throwing lefty, survived an error by third baseman Jones that led to an unearned run in the ninth to earn the save. Rocker has yet to give up a hit in three postseason appearances.
"This is the best bullpen we've had since I've been here," said six-year Braves veteran first baseman Ryan Klesko.
The unearned run the Mets scored in the ninth, drawing them to within two runs, only served to magnify their missed chances early in the game. And none was more damaging than the suicidal botched squeeze.
The Braves turned a harmless leadoff hit by Roger Cedeno into three bases when left fielder Gerald Williams failed to cut off the ball, then threw wildly past third base. But with the squeeze play on, Yoshii missed a juicy bunt pitch, and Cedeno was tagged out easily.
"That was huge," Chipper Jones said. "They had Cedeno on third and nobody out, and we're thinking, 'Let's just give up the one run and get out of here with a tie game.' Then all of a sudden we're back in the dugout still up by a run."
NLCS Notes: Mets third base coach Cookie Rojas began serving a five-game suspension today for shoving umpire Charlie Williams in the chest during an argument Saturday.