- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2000

NEW YORK For the better part of the last decade, the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves have been baseball's answer to the Hollywood sequel: Expensive, star-studded and numbingly predictable. Swaggering through baseball with the smug certainty of the biggest kids in the sandbox, offing opponents with overpowering talent and overstuffed payrolls, the two clubs have combined for four championships and eight World Series appearances since 1991, rendering the playoffs a largely moot game of pick 'em.
"They swing the bats very, very well," Baltimore Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "And because of the pitching they've been able to put out on the field, they've won day-in and day-out."
As the 2000 postseason begins, however, the script has changed: While both teams are solid bets to reach the World Series, neither is a prohibitive favorite. Injuries, spotty play, off-field distractions and improved competition have left the previously untouchable duo looking rather mortal.
"We haven't put up the numbers like the last few years," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "And for periods we haven't played very well."
Said Braves pitcher Tom Glavine: "It's getting tougher every year."
For New York, inconsistency has been the norm. The once-steady club has endured a series of ups and downs to rival second baseman Chuck Knoblauch's painfully errant throws to first base.
After a midsummer surge that put them atop the American League East, the Yankees appeared to be in championship form, pushing the Chicago White Sox for the league's best record in early September. A month later, however, New York is staggering into the postseason, having lost 15 of its last 18 games by a combined score of 137-56.
The Yankees closed out the season with seven straight losses, including six against cellar dwellers Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
"Everything's going wrong," Yankees designated hitter Jose Canseco said after an 11-3 loss to Tampa Bay last week. "I mean every single little thing."
New York's recent woes are remarkably similar to the ones that dogged it early in the season. Going into July, the Yankees were just 38-36, sixth in the AL and reeling from a 30-day, 12-18 skid.
What went wrong? The starting pitching couldn't win. Knoblauch was an E-4 waiting to happen. Slumping bats left New York's offense renowned for its ability to wear down opposing pitchers by going deep into the count ranked just 26th in walks at the All-Star break.
Injuries didn't help. Saddled with a strained right groin muscle, staff ace Roger Clemens began the year 4-6 with a 4.76 ERA before spending nine days on the disabled list in June. In addition, a trio of regulars Knoblauch, center fielder Bernie Williams and right fielder Paul O'Neill all battled nagging injuries.
"We just played bad baseball in the first half," first baseman Tino Martinez said. "Going into the postseason, all we're really concerned about is being healthy."
Desperate to reverse the Yankees' slide, general manager Brian Cashman made a flurry of moves, trading for left-handed pitcher Denny Neagle, power hitters David Justice and Glenallen Hill and utilitymen Luis Sojo and Jose Vizcaino. In early August, Cashman even claimed the superfluous Canseco off waivers the better to prevent the former MVP from helping another contender.
Initially, the deals paid off. With Justice (20 HR, 60 RBI) and Hill (16 HR, AL Player of the Month for August) mashing and Clemens off the DL with a vengeance (9-2 since the All-Star break), the Yankees roared to an eight-game lead in the AL East on Sept. 11.
"We have a good core of guys here," Martinez said. "And when new guys come in here, they know we've won the past couple of World Series and they want to be a part of that, too. They don't want to cause trouble."
Yet if the Yankees' recent skid is any indication, trouble may find them in the postseason. Particularly worrisome is New York's once-vaunted bullpen, which was ridden hard in the first half of the season and has yet to recover. Setup men Jeff Nelson, Jeff Grimsley (out of the playoffs with an injury) and Mike Stanton have sagged badly since midseason, and even uber-closer Mariano Rivera has been hittable.
"We've had to do a lot of manipulating just to get to where we're at," bench coach Don Zimmer said. "Coming out of spring training, I felt that we'd have a tough time this year, which we've had. And we're still having it."
For Atlanta, the tough times began last December, when closer John Rocker ignited a national firestorm with his now-famous comments about gays and minorities. The fallout from those remarks became an ongoing distraction, one that has trailed the Braves from the opening of spring training to final days of the regular season.
Against the New York Mets last week, the Braves were greeted at Shea Stadium by a sizable police presence, had their locker room searched by a pair of bomb-sniffing dogs and saw a fan nearly strike Rocker on the mound with a thrown beer bottle.
"In terms of national attention, it was bigger than anything I've seen or had to deal with, and it didn't really end until after the All-Star break every time we went to a new city it started all over again," said Glavine, the only Brave to play for all nine of Atlanta's division-winning teams since 1991. "It was a pain in the neck."
More damaging particularly as the playoffs begin has been the absence of pitcher John Smoltz, who suffered a season-ending elbow injury in April. Atlanta's top postseason pitcher, Smoltz is 15-9 in the playoffs since 1991, better than fellow aces Glavine (13-11) and Greg Maddux (11-10).
Moreover, Smoltz has been his best when it matters most: In games in which the Braves could clinch a series with a win or be eliminated with a loss, Smoltz is 5-1. His only defeat came in Game 4 of last year's World Series against the Yankees, when Smoltz struck out 11 and scattered six hits and three runs over seven innings, only to receive scant run support in a 4-1 loss.
"He's a highly competitive guy that loves it when all the heat is on, the atmosphere and the challenge," Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "He'll be sorely missed in the playoffs, that's for sure."
Sans Smoltz, the Braves face a gauntlet of highly capable National League contenders. Resurgent San Francisco sports baseball's best record, while St. Louis earned home-field advantage over Atlanta for the first round of the playoffs by winning its season series against the Braves 4-3.
Even within the NL East which Atlanta owned for the last half-decade the Braves have been pushed hard by the wild-card Mets, who took a brief division lead in August and have spent $90 million this season.
"Teams are getting better, and everyone is trying to knock us off our perch," Glavine said. "The last three years, the Mets have certainly become a serious challenger to us. And with each year that goes by, you realize that the law of averages starts to go against you a bit. Sometimes you wonder how you're able to keep doing it."
In New York last week, Zimmer pondered the same topic.
"I think people have gotten spoiled with what's happened here the last four years," he said. "We won, we won, we won. Then the minute we lose, we're terrible. A lot of people think it's easy to win. It's not."
At least not this year.

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