9/27/98: The Braves finished the second half the way they finished the first half, with a three-game sweep of the Mets. The first sweep ended the Mets’ division chances; the second their shot at the wildcard. The Mets must especially be upset after the Giants and Cubs both blew leads today; the Mets would have been in a three-way playoff if they’d won even one game this weekend. The Braves, however, are playing some of their best ball of the year going into postseason.
The Braves’ season was full of accomplishment: 106 wins (a franchise record), five 16-game winners, four 30-homer/90 RBI men, Atlanta or franchise records in runs, home runs, and doubles. Greg Maddux won the ERA title (with season stats pretty much identical to last year’s), and Tom Glavine will likely win the Cy Young. Andres Galarraga performed above my wildest expectations. He and Lopez set team records for home runs at their positions.
9/24/98: The Marlins should be ashamed of themselves. I have never seen a young team that was so disspirited.
Let’s talk Cy Young. There are four real candidates, two Braves, Maddux and Glavine, and two Padres, Kevin Brown and Trevor Hoffman. Maddux had apparently won the award a month ago; now he might be the fourth choice. I don’t really care; I’m still voting for him in the Internet Awards. Maddux’s statistics are still better than any starting pitcher in the league; not as good as they were, and not head and shoulders better, but better. Brown has one more win and a few more strikeouts, but all the other indicators go to Maddux. The argument seems to be that Maddux didn’t pitch well during the “stretch run”, but there was no stretch run. The season in the NL East was basically over July 5th, the day before the All-Star Break, when Michael Tucker slid under Mike Piazza’s tag to finish a sweep of the Mets and put the Braves 12 1/2 games up. The whole second half has been about getting ready for postseason, basically. When the division was still in doubt, Maddux was brilliant, and if any one player carried the Braves for any length of time this year, it was Maddux in June and July.
9/21/98: I was wrong, OK? I wrote (before the season) that the Braves might have to consider trading Tom Glavine (if they needed to trade a starting pitcher to save money). Glavine seemed the obvious candidate; the last couple of years he’d seemed shaky, he was the only one of the starters who hadn’t had a Cy Young caliber season in the last two years. I obviously no longer think that (so stop writing!), especially after Tommy’s 20th win of the year.
I just want to clarify — I didn’t think they should trade him, just that if they needed to make a deal that was the way to go. I now think they should trade a starting pitcher — Denny Neagle. Neagle doesn’t look to me to be any better than Kevin Millwood now, Bruce Chen looks awfully good, and Neagle’s value is unlikely to get higher. The Braves need a corner outfielder who can hit, and a Neagle-for-an-outfielder deal (or Neagle going for prospects and signing a free agent outfielder) in the offseason would make a lot of sense.
9/18/98: With a nice little four-game winning streak going (and the Astros losing two games to the Mets and the Padres getting beat up by the Cubs) the Braves are back in first place overall in the NL. None of the three division winners is trying that hard to win the best record. The first game after clinching Monday, the Braves sat six regulars, and have had one or two normal benchwarmers, at least, in each lineup the last two days. The starting pitchers are being held to pretty low pitch counts, and Smoltz and Millwood will apparently pitch only out of the pen for the rest of the regular season, Millwood to get used to the role and Smoltz to make sure his elbow is well rested. If you don’t remember, John felt he got tired in the postseason in 1995 after his last elbow surgery. Bruce Chen will start for Millwood, and I guess Dennis Martinez could get a start, maybe on the last day of the season.
9/14/98: The Braves finally clinched, about a week late, beating the Phillies 4-2. Chipper Jones, who hasn’t been himself recently (he needs a break, I think) had a big night.
Greg Maddux was having a fine game — not a typical Maddux game, his control wasn’t all that sharp, but a one-hit shutout — yesterday when he had some soreness under his pitching arm and was removed. Normally, I would tend to think that his problems were traceable to his injury, but I rather think it’s the other way around; his mechanics were off, and that caused his injury. He only started pitching well when he started hurting! He says he’ll pitch next week. He likely won’t win 20 games this year, since he’ll probably only get two more starts.
9/10/98: The Braves actually won a game tonight! Of course, they probably wouldn’t have if the Expos hadn’t been totally incompetent. This is the worst I can recall the team playing since early 1992. Kevin Millwood got the win. Keith Lockhart played for the first time in what seems like a month; it’s time we faced the fact that the Braves’ middle infield is, for all intents and purposes, Tony Graffanino and Ozzie Guillen. It’s like having Belliard and Lemke back, without the defense.
About the only bright spots of late have been the brilliant pitching of John Smoltz and the surge by Andruw Jones, now hitting .275, close to his highest point of the year, with 29 home runs and continued excellent defense. (If he doesn’t win the gold glove they should stop giving out the award.) He’s even started to draw a few walks lately. George Lombard, who should be in the Braves’ outfield with Andruw for about a decade, got his first career at-bat today. He struck out.
9/6/98: The Braves finally broke a three-game losing streak by beating the Mets today behind John Smoltz and four solo home runs. All four homers had their interesting points. The first was by Ryan Klesko, his first in a month; the second by Marty Malloy, just called up from AAA (he should have been up a while ago), on his second major league at-bat; the third was by Andruw Jones, his 50th career homer; the fourth by Andres Galarraga, back off of a three-game suspension. I’m not Andres’ biggest fan, but the Braves missed him badly. Smoltz was great, but then he’s been great pretty consistently since coming off of the DL.
Greg Maddux has not been great the last three starts (though the middle start was a quality start and wouldn’t have caused any comment except for the starts around it). His problem in the other two starts was home runs. Three of the home runs today were off of Rick Reed, who is sort of a Maddux-type. Greg doesn’t normally give up home runs, but great control pitchers usually do. I assume he’ll make adjustments as he usually does.
9/2/98: After blowing a six-run lead to the Cardinals Sunday, and Kerry Ligtenberg being very shaky Monday (albeit in a tough position) and blowing a save to lose to the Astros, the bullpen looked again like a source of concern, but the combo of Odaliz Perez (called up from Richmond, along with Bruce Chen; George Lombard was called up from Greenville, meaning all of the Braves’ top upper-level prospects are getting a major league look), Seanez, and Ligtenberg was strong last night to hold onto a shaky win for Denny Neagle. Javy Lopez and Chipper Jones each hit their 32nd home run. Javy’s sets a new single-season record for a Braves catcher. Actually, Joe Torre had more in some seasons, but not as a catcher; he often played third or first base when he wasn’t catching, and of course was eventually moved to third (and later to first) full-time. Which brings up…
The Braves obviously aren’t going to use Javy to fill in at first or third, but the outfield is pretty shaky at times. Should the Braves maybe give Javy some work there in spring training so they can keep one of their big bats in the lineup full-time? Defense won’t be too big of a deal, he can’t be much worse than Klesko is and Andruw covers so much ground out there there’s not really a big need for fleet corner outfielders. Of course, it’s likely the Braves will sign a free agent outfielder or trade for one, so there might not be space there anymore. As for Chipper, the Atlanta record for a third baseman would seem to be 37 by Bob Horner in 1980, and should be reachable; the franchise record for a third baseman is the same as the overall franchise record, 47 by Eddie Mathews (shared by Hank Aaron) which isn’t. Andres Galarraga has a good shot at Hank and Eddie, though, and I think that’s the next countdown.