Baseball's most precise pitcher was defeated Tuesday by an appalling lack of
leather. The Atlanta Braves committed two official errors and gift-wrapped all five Florida runs in a 5-3 playoff loss to the mistake-free Marlins.
Pitching might be 90 percent of this game, but it is only as good as the gloves behind it.
Maddux pitched 232 1/3 innings during the regular season, and permitted only one unearned run. But Fred McGriff, Kenny Lofton and Chipper Jones cost him five in the space of three innings in the first game of the National League Championship Series. The Braves have the best arms in baseball. Their hands, however, pose some problems.
"If we don't make any errors, they don't score any runs," said Atlanta manager Bobby Cox.
Always a soft spot
Each October, Atlanta begins postseason play as the ballclub to beat. Then the Braves discover some new way to beat themselves. The New York Yankees exploited Cox's bullpen and embarrassed his bench in winning last year's World Series. They found soft spots in Atlanta's lineup and big hitters who could be pitched around. And they won Games 4 and 5 by margins that matched their number of unearned runs.
Atlanta's defense is reasonably strong up the middle, but it gets a little wobbly on the wings. McGriff made 13 errors during the regular season - an enormous total for a first baseman - and his unsure hands were a large liability Tuesday night.
With two on and two out in Florida's first inning, Jeff Conine somehow managed to drive the ball between McGriff's legs, a fielded play previously associated with Bill Buckner. This loaded the bases for Moises Alou, whose relatively routine hopper eluded Jones at third base.
Jones missed the ball cleanly, and was not charged with an error, but he had tried to backhand the ball and looked listless in doing so. "I wouldn't say I make that play 99 out of 100 times, but maybe 95 or 96," Jones said. "It's one of those things where if I get out and get in front of it, I don't have a play anywhere. So I had to backhand it."
Brooks Robinson makes this play blindfolded, even now. Because Jones didn't, the Marlins scored three runs before the Braves ever came to bat.
Atlanta got one run back in the bottom of the first, but its defensive lapses forced Cox into premature panic mode. With one run in, two men out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the first inning, Cox yanked catcher Eddie Perez from the game in favor of Javy Lopez. Lopez is the better hitter, but he rarely catches Maddux. When Lopez grounded out to end the inning, Maddux was stuck with him. Perhaps their lack of chemistry was a contributing factor in Florida's decisive two-run third inning, except that would be shifting blame that more properly belongs to Lofton.
Braves gave game away
Gary Sheffield started the Florida third with a deep drive to right-center field. Lofton, the center fielder, reached the spot at cruising speed,only to have the ball glance off his glove.
"I was trying to get to it," Lofton said. "I got to it. But I didn't make the catch. I can't control how they score it."
Huh? If this wasn't an error, Showgirls was a hit.
Sheffield, no sprinter, ran all the way to third base while his ball was being retrieved. Maddux then walked Bobby Bonilla. Both baserunners subsequently scored, after what should have been the inning's third out.
"You can't fault anyone for making errors," Maddux said. "That's part of the game. It doesn't matter how you lose or how you win."
What matters is that the Braves are one game down in a best-of-seven series. It was a game they gave away.
"A lot of little things went wrong for us tonight," Lofton said. "Maybe we got it out of our system."
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