Braves offer reminder of why they are champions

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ST. LOUIS - The Braves are still breathing. Their pulse pulsates. Their vital signs are vigorous. To borrow a felicitous phrase from a famous Missourian, reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.

Trailing three games to one in the National League Championship Series, baseball's reigning World Champions restored the faith of their fretting faithful and reminded Cardinal fans why they were so widely favored to advance to the World Series.

Simply put, it is pitching. Atlanta's 14-0 stampede of St. Louis Monday night underscored the most glaring mismatch between the National League finalists. While Braves manager Bobby Cox is able to start three successive Cy Youngs on four days rest, the Cardinals' Tony La Russa has felt compelled to place inferior pitchers on an accelerated schedule in order to compete. The talent and fatigue factors are finally starting to tell.

John Smoltz and three relievers shut out the Cardinals on seven singles Monday. Meanwhile, the Braves broke out of their series slump with 22 hits against Todd Stottlemyre and his successors, seven of which went for extra bases. Perhaps there was some overkill at work here, or maybe the Braves merely misread the schedule for batting practice, but the effect was emphatic.

''They set the table and they cleaned the table,'' said St. Louis third baseman Gary Gaetti. ''And then they did the dishes.''

The two-touchdown triumph enabled the Braves to return to Atlanta for Games Six and (if necessary) Seven secure in the knowledge that four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux and 1991 winner Tom Glavine are the scheduled starters. St. Louis is expected to counter with the less legendary duo of Donovan Osborne and Andy Benes.

The Cardinals continue to lead the best-of-seven series, 3-2, but Atlanta's odds are probably no worse than even.

''We can do it,'' Cox said. ''We talked about it all day. We can win three in a row. We're on a mission right now.''

The Braves' mission statement was drafted during a purposeful pregame meeting in the visitors clubhouse.

''It was a very short meeting,'' Cox said. ''And it wasn't to say, 'Have a nice winter.' We said we're going to play seven more (games), maybe 10.''

Smoltz, Atlanta's 24-game winner, pitched from the comfort of never having to face a St. Louis hitter who represented the tying run. The Braves scored five times in the first inning - three times before Stottlemyre had registered an out - and continued to pile it on after additional offense was pointless.

Marquis Grissom hit Stottlemyre's first pitch for a bloop single to right field, and Mark Lemke followed with a line-drive double to right-center field. Stottlemyre then went to a full count on Chipper Jones, who lined the 3-2 pitch into the left field corner for two runs.

After that, the outcome was academic. Stottlemyre gave up nine hits before he was relieved with nobody out in Atlanta's second inning. His evening's earned-run average: 63.00.

''You can do all the talking and everything you want to,'' Stottlemyre said. ''But there's only one way to handle it - try to swallow it, as hard as it is to swallow, and move on. . . .

''I really felt like I made a lot of good pitches. Obviously, they weren't good enough.''

This much was true of all five St. Louis pitchers. Atlanta second baseman Mark Lemke had four hits by the fourth inning, and the last of them was the Braves' 16th hit of the game. This was as many hits as any team had ever made in an NLCS game and still six short of where Atlanta's barrage stopped.

''What I really liked tonight is that we had a killer instinct,'' Chipper Jones said. ''We kept piling it on. Last night, I didn't sense that.''

Sunday night, Busch Stadium had been an ear-splitting sound studio. Monday, by the seventh-inning stretch, roughly half of a record crowd of 56,782 had cleared out.

''We will be fine,'' La Russa promised, ''but we could have been finer.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 15, 1996.