BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
ATLANTA -- The summer of love is over. The suspension of disbelief has expired. The Chicago Cubs' rollicking joy ride has reached a sober reckoning.
To keep the party going at this point, baseball's enduring doormats must now rise to the lofty level of the Atlanta Braves. They must do with adrenaline what they cannot do with ability. They must play out of their minds, and pray the Braves lose theirs.
Wednesday's National League division series opener was everything you would expect, and probably a preview of coming attractions. John Smoltz was his customary postseason self (dominant), Ryan Klesko hit another big playoff blast (this one a grand slam), the Braves turned a two-out bobble into a two-run rally and supplied their spoiled spectators with a 7-1 romp.
Harry Caray notwithstanding, the Cubs didn't have a ghost of a chance.
"I don't know if it was discouraging," said Cubs third baseman Gary Gaetti, who should be old enough to know. "But we didn't really get anything going today. It was a weird atmosphere, not a playoff atmosphere at all. It was not crowded and kind of quiet. Just a gray kind of day."
The Braves are as boring as C-Span, and as relentless as rust. Bobby Cox chooses a pitcher from his Cooperstown rotation, constructs a lineup card of quality parts, and counts on the law of averages to take its course.
Wednesday this meant watching Smoltz become the winningest pitcher in postseason history with 7 2/3 innings of superior stuff. (Five hits, six strikeouts, no walks, one run).
"Smoltz was just the story of the game," Cubs manager Jim Riggleman said Wednesday evening at Turner Field. "He made us look like we weren't out there fighting."
Atlanta has won the World Series only once, in 1995, but the Braves are seldom surprised by a team so clearly inferior as the Cubs. Since baseball added an extra round to the playoffs in 1995, the Braves are 10-1 in division series games, and likely to improve on that record.
Consider that Smoltz' turn on the mound is to be followed by those of Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.
Consider that the Cubs' most promising pitching matchup may involve a rookie (Kerry Wood) with a tender elbow and a month between starts.
Consider it an upset if this best-of-five series goes beyond three games.
"The Braves continue to show that they are the class of the National League," Riggleman said. "And the rest of us have to raise our standards and level of play to catch up to them. Hopefully, we will get a fast start on that tomorrow."
"We played a little bit poor," said Sammy Sosa. "I have to say that we're going to come back tomorrow and play better."
Fairy tale is over
Fairy tales can come true, but the Cubs' comeuppance is already overdue. Last weekend's shared meltdown with the San Francisco Giants and Monday's raucous clincher at Wrigley Field revealed the Cubs to be a team of considerable heart and conspicuous holes. Their lineup consists primarily of Sosa and a bunch of guys grateful for expansion.
Their starting rotation, on a good day, is average.
Their bullpen is, at best, a thrill ride.
The Cubs are as overmatched in Atlanta as was Argentina in the Falklands.
"It's really tough to play here," Gaetti said. "It's a new stadium and all that, but hitting against these guys is tough, tough, tough."
Taped to a wall in the visitors clubhouse, and highlighted with a yellow marking pen, was a column from Wednesday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution headlined: "Cubs a veritable bye in opening round."
If the Cubs derived any incentive from being so summarily dissed, they were poorly positioned to argue their case after the game. Asked to respond to the perception that the Cubs were cannon fodder, Gaetti had no glib reply.
"That," he said, "is probably the reality of the thing."
Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at email@example.com
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