- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 20, 2001

ATLANTA The Arizona Diamondbacks are trying to bounce back in the National League Championship Series. They couldn't have picked a better guy to have on the mound.

Curt Schilling was a 22-game winner during the regular season and picked up two more victories against St. Louis in the first round of the playoffs. Impressive enough, but his real value to the Diamondbacks is measured in a separate set of numbers: 15-1, 1.57 ERA.

That's what Schilling has done when he starts after an Arizona loss the situation he was in last night, in a game that did not end in time for this edition, when he faced John Burkett and the Atlanta Braves with the series tied at one game apiece.

"What more can you say about the guy?" catcher Damian Miller said. "It just shows you what kind of character he has on the mound. He's the kind of pitcher that wants the ball. A guy like that is so important on a ballclub."

The Diamondbacks won Game 1 behind Randy Johnson, only to get blown out 8-1 the following night. Javy Lopez hit a tie-breaking homer in the seventh inning, and the Braves pulled away with five runs in the eighth against the shaky Arizona bullpen.

"After a tough loss, for [Schilling] to take the ball is just a huge boost of confidence for us," Miller said. "Hopefully, we can come out and swing the bats."

The Diamondbacks are hitting .206 (14-for-63) through the first two games, producing only three runs. The Braves have just 11 hits in the series, but three of them were homers in Game 2.

Atlanta doesn't expect to get many good pitches to hit in Game 3.

Schilling, who was Philadelphia's top starter when he faced the Braves in the 1993 NLCS, has gotten better with age. At 34, this was the first 20-win season of his career.

Bobby Cox doesn't see many similarities with the pitcher who had two strong outings against the Braves in '93, helping Philadelphia advance to the World Series.

"I remember him more then as a low-ball pitcher, kept the ball down way down in the strike zone and hit the outside corner," the Atlanta manager said. "Now, he's more well-rounded because he'll change your eye level. He'll go way up out of the strike zone intentionally."

To beat Schilling, the Braves must lay off the high fastball he likes to throw with two strikes. That's easier said than done.

"You know he likes to be aggressive, yet it's still hard," said B.J. Surhoff, who homered in Game 2. "There's not a lot of tricks going on. Curt's going to use his fastball and breaking ball, move in and out. In this game, it comes down to execution: whether you're ahead in the count or behind in the count, whether you get the ball up in the zone and whether the hitter's patient or not."

Schilling and Johnson give the Diamondbacks a lethal 1-2 combination, but little room for error in a short series. The Braves will have a huge advantage if they win, knowing Johnson is not scheduled to pitch again until Game 5.

"Up to this point, I feel like I've done as much as I can when I had the ball," Schilling said. "But it's not over."

The Braves hope Burkett (12-12 during the regular season) can match Schilling for six innings, then turn the game over to a deep bullpen.

In the seventh, Atlanta can bring in Steve Reed, a groundball specialist. Or Mike Remlinger, just the man to face a dangerous left-handed slugger. Or Rudy Seanez, who can blow away right-handed hitters.

Steve Karsay usually comes on in the eighth, throwing 95 mph. Finally, the Braves hand the ball to John Smoltz, a former 20-game winner who has thrived in the role of ninth-inning closer.

"The teams that win it all year in and year out all have strong bullpens," Reed said. "Most teams pay one guy to be the closer, but four or five others have to get you there. You better have some guys for the middle innings, too."

The Braves failed to learn that lesson, managing just one World Series title since their playoff streak began a decade ago.

Much of the blame goes to a mediocre bullpen. Beginning in 1991, Atlanta is 13-24 in one-run games during the NLCS and World Series. The mark is even more dismal 4-11 in extra-inning contests.

This season, the bullpen is so strong that Cox is considering a three-man rotation, even though fourth starter Kevin Millwood was added to the roster after the opening round of the playoffs.

"I've got this thing in my mind that we could go with three starters because our bullpen is so strong," Cox said. "It's got depth. We've always felt that if our starters could give us six, we're certainly going to cover the seventh, eighth and ninth."


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