The first crucial play of the 1999 World Series might have arrived before the first pitch. Tom Glavine "caught" a stomach virus. That tiny bug in the Braves' elaborate pitching plot will dramatically change this whole Series.

Ever since Atlanta beat the Mets on Tuesday, the Braves have been licking their chops at the combination of brains and luck that allowed them to set up what seemed to them a wonderful--although subtle and counterintuitive--pitching rotation for the World Series.

Meanwhile, the Yankees--at least from the Braves' perspective--seemed asleep at the switch in naming their rotation. Everything that seemed to help the Braves--slight, but still appreciably--they did. Was this Series actually being decided before the first pitch was thrown? Could pure inside-baseball strategy really play such a large role on the biggest stage?

The Braves' rationale is complex. But the plan was simple: The Yankees hate to face lefties. Even in a lefty-bereft league in which Jamie Moyer may be the premier southpaw, New York's stats plummet against port-siders. Scouts say the Yankees' other weakness is against soft-tossing speed-changers. The Yankees already have had a five-day layoff and their hitters' timing may be off.

To capitalize on both these tendencies, the Braves decided to start their only lefty, Tom Glavine, in Game 1 followed by Greg Maddux--despite the conventional wisdom that Kevin Millwood and John Smoltz were their best (as well as lowest-ERA) pitchers this season.

Both Glavine and Maddux are masters of the change-up. Glavine, after a lousy season, has finally found a groove and gone on a brilliant five-start roll. The Braves figured that, despite his bad stats, he was their best Yankee killer and a kind of semi-secret weapon, too.

As for Maddux, he's still Cy Young at home (2.86 ERA). He surrended just three singles in the first seven innings Saturday night before unraveling in the eighth. On the road, he has a 4.71 ERA and a league average of .337 against him. With a four-man rotation, the only way to get two home starts for a pitcher is to work him in Games 2 and 6. That was the plan for Maddux.

There was more, much more, to the Braves' plot. But the key was starting Glavine in Game 1 and keeping Maddux out of Yankee Stadium.

So much for the best-laid plans of mice and managers. Glavine called skipper Bobby Cox near midnight on Friday to say he was too sick to pitch. "Tommy has pitched at times with a bad arm, shoulder, elbow, two broken ribs, two bad knees, a bad ankle, an infected toe and never missed a start," said a blindsided Cox before Game 1 on Saturday night. So what got him this time? "Dehydrated," Cox said.

Go figure. At least the Yankees can take pleasure in knowing Glavine, and his whole family, got sick while in New York. It's their germ.

To know just how flummoxed this makes the Braves feel, consider the other prong of their plan: using their regular season ace Kevin Millwood in Games 3 and 7 against Andy Pettitte.

In setting a Series rotation, the most important game is . . . drum roll . . . Game 7. "You always start with Seven and work back," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said last week.

The Braves figured that, while Millwood, 24, might have some nerves at Yankee Stadium, he'd be their best shot in a Game 7. Millwood was second only to Randy Johnson as an intimidator in the NL this season.

The Braves also liked Pettitte as a foe for Millwood. The Braves' strength is that they destroy lefties. Look what they did to Al Leiter in Game 6 of the NLCS: They devour southpaws as much as the Yanks spit them out. Almost every Brave hits lefties better, especially Chipper Jones (.352 to .308) and Brian Jordan (.331 to .270). Sure, southpaws drive Ryan Klesko out of the lineup. But, all in all, the Braves just say, "Thanks."

Now, Millwood has been pushed into Games 2 and 6--against that cool veteran customer David Cone. There's no Braves edge in that matchup.

Only one factor still redounds to the Braves' advantage. The Yanks may yet spend the winter asking why they started Pettitte twice and Roger Clemens--with his huge contract--only once. Isn't this what they got the Rocket for? For the moment, the Braves still assume Glavine will be back to pitch Games 3 and 7. So, they won't have to switch their Game 4 matchup of John Smoltz and Clemens. The Braves love that one.

Even the five-time Cy Young Award winner Clemens will never intimidate Smoltz, whose postseason record is as spectacular as Clemens's is mediocre.

Those, like me, who've been wishing for a long, thrilling Series, had hoped that the Braves' superior rotation planning might negate the more basic truth of this Series: that the Braves, without injured Javy Lopez, Andres Galarraga and Kerry Ligtenberg, just aren't quite as good as New York.

Still, one of baseball's charms is that, if you just change your bar stool, you can usually see things the other way. Could Glavine's illness be a blessing in disguise? True, Maddux now has to start in New York. On the other hand, if Glavine gets well, his two meetings with Pettitte might favor Atlanta quite nicely. Two southpaws--one against a team that dislikes facing lefties, the other against a team that can't wait to see 'em.

Let's assume, for the fun of it, that these two teams with their impeccable pedigrees are fated to meet in a Game 7 in Atlanta. Whatever comebacks or quirks of fate are needed to bring it about will happen. So, ultimately, the issue for Atlanta may be: Would you rather have Glavine start the Series or finish it? As Torre says, finishing is more important.

Only one Yankee has good career stats against Glavine: Darryl Strawberry (three homers in 32 at-bats). But he wouldn't play in a DH-less Game 7. The rest of the New York roster has only four career RBI in 122 at-bats.

So, at the moment here in Georgia, Glavine's 72-hour virus is making the Braves and their fans very sick. However, if the Braves are tough enough and lucky enough to get to a Game 7, it might be Glavine who makes the Yankees feel ill in the end.