No feasting on Atlanta's great pitching

The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOS ANGELES - Suddenly, the candy store is closed. The big sluggers have been gorging themselves all summer, but now they are hungry and anxious. The baseball has more bite to it as it approaches the plate, and runs are being rationed.

Must be October. Must be the Braves.

Atlanta's arms factory returned to the postseason Wednesday afternoon with much the same force it finished last fall. John Smoltz and Mark Wohlers held the Los Angeles Dodgers to five hits in a 10-inning, 2-1 victory in the National League Division Series opener.

Now Bobby Cox's pitching rotation turns to the masterful Greg Maddux and the merely great Tom Glavine. Somewhere, the Big Dodger In The Sky must be sighing.

The playoffs are still a puppy, yet a sense of inevitability has already set in. The Braves may not be a lock to defend their World Series title, but they hold most of the correct keys.

As they demonstrated Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, the Braves are adept at manufacturing runs (see Marquis Grissom's footwork in the fourth inning), proficient at timely power (see Javy Lopez's 10th-inning homer) and still unmatched on the mound. Until someone can equal Atlanta's starting pitching, there will be an air of anticlimax around these proceedings.

It could happen to anyone

''Any time you go against the Braves, the bats go silent,'' said Eric Karros, the Dodgers' first baseman. ''Those guys can throw. . . .' When you face a staff like that, you're going to get two or maybe three pitches to hit all day. You can't miss.''

Dodgers starter Ramon Martinez was magnificent Wednesday, but magnificent isn't always good enough against Atlanta. Martinez held the Braves to three hits over eight inningsand had nothing to show for it but a no-decision.

''Going into the game, I was thinking, 'We're going to face one of the best pitchers in baseball,' '' Martinez said. ''The way we've been hitting, I knew it would be a tough game.''

Martinez went on to say several unflattering things about his hitters, but this was based more on frustration than fact. John Smoltz did not win 24 games during the regular season by serving up batting practice.

''If they felt frustrated, they should have,'' Wohlers said of the Dodgers, ''because Smoltz can do that to teams.''

When in full command of his slider, John Smoltz has more stuff than you can shake a Louisville Slugger at. His slider showed some wanderlust Wednesday, and yet he was dominant. The Dodgers' only run was the product of a pool-cue double down the left-field line by Todd Hollandsworth. When Smoltz left the game after nine innings, he had retired the last 13 Los Angeles hitters.

''The outside part of the plate was his all day,'' Karros said. ''When you combine power and placement, you're going to be hard to beat.''

Another one in the pen

Smoltz left the game after nine innings because his last four outs were recorded on fly balls, two of them to the warning track, another requiring an acrobatic grab by Grissom in center field. There was no point in pressing his luck. With Wohlers in the bullpen, Cox can rarely make a wrong move when it matters.

''I wasn't nervous till I came out of the game,'' Smoltz said. ''I felt really good all game. Even in the 10th inning, I felt I could go out. But Wohlers has done a tremendous job for me.

''You couldn't ask for a better game for a fan to watch if you like pitching.''

If you like hitting, you are advised to look elsewhere.

''If you're a betting man and you know the matchups, you'd say things were going to work out the way it did,'' Cox said. ''Low scoring, and whichever team catches the break would win. We caught the break today.''

Most days, the Braves do. Small wonder. When your pitching staff is as strong as Atlanta's, a little break goes a long way.

''That's why they're World Champions,'' Karros said.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 3, 1996.