John Rocker charges in from the Atlanta Braves' bullpen with a heaving chest and rolling eyes, looking not like a closer so much as Marmaduke being called to supper. He throws his high-90s fastball with vein-popping effort, and punctuates big outs--of which there have been many lately--with fist-pumps and screams.
The Braves' pitching staff, which always has taken its personality from its staid aces, has never seen anyone quite like Rocker, a 6-foot-4 left-hander with a big fastball, a big mouth and a big entrance. The first time third baseman Chipper Jones saw Rocker bounding in from the bullpen, he said to himself, "This guy is a maniac."
It has been a long time, too, since the Braves' bullpen has had a closer as intimidating, as overpowering and as effective as Rocker, who saved each of the first two games of the National League Championship Series in Atlanta. The Braves take a 2-0 lead over the New York Mets into Friday night's Game 3 at Shea Stadium.
In nine games against the Mets this season, including Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS, Rocker has not yielded a run and is 7 for 7 in save opportunities. In Wednesday's Game 2 victory, Braves Manager Bobby Cox showed how much faith he has in Rocker by intentionally walking Mike Piazza to put the potential winning run on base, taking his chances with Rocker against Robin Ventura. Rocker struck him out.
While Rocker's entrances at Turner Field have become an event--rock music blaring, the crowd exploding in cheers when the bullpen gate opens, Rocker running in at a quarter-miler's sprint--his greeting at Shea is not likely to be so warmly received.
Never one to keep his opinion to himself, Rocker has tweaked the Mets, Manager Bobby Valentine and their fans at times during the last month. And after Wednesday's Game 2 win, he turned up the volume.
"To hell with New York fans," Rocker was quoted in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying. "They're stupid anyway. We beat them 20 out of 26 times [since 1998], and they still say we [stink]. Well, if we [stink] so bad, how come they can't beat us? They're a tired act."
Rocker, 25, has every reason to boast. His emergence this season and dominance this postseason give the Braves a weapon--an unassailable closer--they have had only one other year during their run of eight straight postseason appearances. Not coincidentally, that year was 1995, the year Mark Wohlers helped carry the Braves to their only World Series title, before Wohlers descended into a career-ending funk.
This Braves bullpen is one of Atlanta's best of the 1990s, posting a 33-14 record and 3.52 earned run average this season. Mike Remlinger, who went 10-1 with a 2.37 ERA and signed a two-year contract extension for $3.2 million Wednesday, is the best left-handed setup man the Braves have had since they traded Mike Stanton after the 1995 season.
In the Braves' seemingly eternal quest for a closer, eight different relievers have lead the team in saves during the 1990s--Joe Boever in 1990, Juan Berenguer in 1991, Alejandro Pena in 1992, Stanton in 1993, Greg McMichael in 1994, Wohlers from 1995 to '97, Kerry Ligtenberg in 1998 and Rocker this season.
The lack of a dominant closer and a perennially suspect bullpen has been singled out by critics as one of the reasons the Braves have only one World Series title to show for their unprecedented run of postseason berths in the decade, something Cox disputes.
"We've always had pretty good bullpens," said Cox. "We didn't win the division series and get to the World Series a couple of times without a good bullpen through the years. . . . It's an easy [area] for most critics to pick on because there wasn't much else to pick on."
Rocker, who throws a slider and an occasional curveball in addition to his fastball, got his chance this season only because Ligtenberg tore a ligament in his elbow in spring training. He saved 38 games this season, one shy of Wohlers's club record. That Rocker would develop into one of the league's best closers surprised even the Braves.
"Two years ago, John Rocker was not faring very well [as a starting pitcher] in our minor league system," Cox said.
The Braves sent Rocker to the Arizona Fall League and the Puerto Rican winter league in 1997 to try to convert him to a reliever. Though left unprotected in the expansion draft, Rocker was not selected.
"He came back to our camp," Cox said, "and we sent him to Triple-A [Richmond] to get a few games under his belt. And then the guy blossomed just like that."
But baseball's recent history is littered with hard-throwing closers who flamed out early, victims of the intense pressure of the job. Perhaps because he saw what happened to Wohlers, Rocker seems to understand the dangers.
Rocker, who throws hard, tries hard and lives hard, hopes he learns to "mellow out," he said, "because I don't think I can keep up this pace. . . . If I keep up the frantic pace I go at now, I think I'll probably die young, which might not be a bad thing. I'll calm down or burn out trying."
CAPTION: Of John Rocker, above, teammate Chipper Jones said to himself, "This guy is a maniac," the first time he saw 6-foot-4 left-hander charge in from bullpen.