September 30, 1998
Playoff Preview - Atlanta vs. Chicago
Our Appraisal of the Braves/Cubs playoff
For the first time in their post-'45 history, the Cubs didn't lead the league in scoring to get themselves into the playoffs. Their previous benchmarks for success, '84 and '89, saw them do it, but then standards were tougher way back then for playoff teams. The Cubs offense finished well behind the Astros and Giants and basically tied with the Braves at 5.1 runs per game, and for a team playing in Wrigley, that's weak. In the Cubs' defense, there's a lot of talk that the wind has blown in more this year than in years previous, but that seems more wishcasting and Wrig'gling for the Cubbie faithful.
So what will the Cubs go with going into their series with the Braves? They're basically stuck with the low-powered lineup that has Lance Johnson leading off, followed by Mickey Morandini, Sammy Sosa, Mark Grace, O Henry Rodriguez, Gary Gaetti at third, Jose Hernandez at short, and the catching platoon of Tyler Houston and Scott Servais bringing up the rear. Against Tommy Glavine or Denny Neagle (should the Cubs get that far), Glenallen Hill will replace Rodriguez. Facing the Braves' excellent rotation, you'd think that the Cubs would try to shoot for putting runs on the board. That isn't going to happen. Jim Riggleman is afraid of playing Brant Brown after last Wednesday's dropped ball. (Try to explain the bizarre choice of Orlando Merced as the first choice to enter in the double-switch in Monday night's game.) He's afraid to bench Morandini against really tough lefties. He's afraid to do what helped get this team where it is now, which is to skip niggling defensive considerations to put the best lineup on the field, like he had when the Cubs stuck with Brown in center and Henry Rodriguez in left. The Cubs are a significantly worse offensive team now than they were a couple of months ago, before Rodriguez turned his ankle and Morandini came back down to earth, when Brown was playing, and Jeff Blauser was getting on base often enough to keep the Cubs to only one bad spot in the lineup, their catchers. Tactically, the Cubs don't do much. They're not a fast team, or a good bunting team, or a team that's really successful with the hit and run. Riggleman pulls the occasional double-switch, which might make sense on paper, except that it frequently involves Manny Alexander, which isn't helpful: what's the point of moving the pitcher's spot away from a plate appearance if you end up giving it to an auto-out like Alexander? Being "dumber" and just pinch-hitting for the pitcher's spot is more worthwhile, especially with the weak bottom of the order for the Cubs.
The Braves have few offensive problems, but a few question marks. Unlike the Cubs' collection of grizzled old men and Sammyvision, this is a team built around two great young players at the height of their careers (Chipper Jones and Javy Lopez), one at the start of his (Andruw Jones), and one who's defied all expectations to have his best season at 37, Andres Galarraga. Those four regulars all slugged over .500, and we shouldn't forget Ryan Klesko's plus-.500 figure against RHPs or Ice Williams' plus-.500 mark against lefties. Although they scored runs at the same rate as the Cubs, they outslugged them by 20 points, and they had a higher team OBP. The heart of their order, the Joneses, Javy Lopez, and Andres Galarraga, are a broader murderer's row than any other in the playoffs. That's not to say everything's perfect. There are health concerns for the top of the order, as both Walt Weiss and Keith Lockhart are struggling with injuries. Even if they were 100%, however, it isn't as if we're talking about whether or not this is a lineup that depends on its leadoff hitters as if they were Lenny Dykstra or Rickey Henderson. Weiss has been cold since his great April, and Lockhart is an adequate hitter, even on his good days. Bobby Cox may choose to switch things around, particularly if Weiss is hurt, and put #8 hitter Michael Tucker at the top of the order. But that's essentially beside the point: the Braves' offense is built around the exceptional power of the heart of their order, and anything they get from the Lockharts and the Tuckers are gravy. Because the Cubs aren't initially expecting to start Terry Mulholland at all, the right-handed platoon mates for Lockhart, Klesko, and Tucker (Tony Graffanino, Williams, and Danny Bautista) won't start.
The Braves' defensive unit is pretty solid. They have outstanding gloves at first and third in the Big Cat and Chipper, and the Graffhart Lockanino platoon at second has good range and turns the deuce well. There's a big dropoff at short if Ozzie Guillen is playing instead of Weiss. In the outfield, Andruw Jones is probably the best centerfielder in the game today, combining outstanding range with an run-killing cannon of a throwing arm. Tucker is a solid right-fielder, and if anyone knows how to live with Klesko in left, it's the Braves. With Ice Williams available as a defensive replacement, the Braves can toss three good centerfielders onto the field if they want to kill off extra base hits in the late innings. Javy Lopez has made significant progress in controlling the running game, while it isn't quite clear if teams are running early and often on Eddie Perez because he's firing a popgun, or just because they're desperate to make something happen with Greg Maddux on the mound.
As for the Cubs, they have some problems. They do not turn the deuce well. This isn't just because of Jeff Blauser and/or his elbow; Jose Hernandez isn't reliable at it despite good range, and despite a noisy pr campaign for a Gold Glove, Mickey Morandini hasn't been an asset in producing the pitcher's best friend. Mark Grace, like Keith Hernandez before him, can be an awfully swell scooper, but he cannot magically make his fellow infielders that much better. The Servais-Houston platoon doesn't catch particularly well, and is almost hopelessly ineffectual against the running game. Sammy's defense in right is sporadically inspired, brilliant, clumsy, and ill-considered. Lance Johnson's range isn't what it was, and his wet noodle of an arm will gift Braves baserunners with extra bases. Between Rodriguez, Glenallen Hill, or Brant Brown in left, the Cubs have a rare trifecta that can make Klesko look good by comparison.
The best rotation in baseball vs. the Cubs. Is there really that much to say? In their overinflated claims that they have the Braves' number, the Cubs beat Denny Neagle twice and smacked Kevin Millwood around, but they'll be lucky to see either of them in this series. John Smoltz is as close as you're going to ever get to a pitcher who fulfills any definition of clutch or postseason money player. The Cubs roughed him up in one start when he wasn't 100%, which will probably just make him mad going into tonight. Tom Glavine hasn't had problems with the Cubs in the past, and people like Glenallen Hill or Scott Servais shouldn't give him much concern. Maddux will be rested, if untanned. Although he's had his share of problems in the postseason and lost his head-to-head matchup with Kerry Wood this year, he'll give the Braves a quality start. If there is a fourth game, Denny Neagle has struggled with the Cubs in the past, which might help set up a fifth game with Smoltz pitching against Mulholland or Mark Clark.
As for the Cubs' rotation, lets pretend everything breaks their way and Kerry Wood starts in game three. Maybe the Cubs' chances of winning that game are good, but he has walked 16 men in three starts against the Braves, and only Eric Gregg can help them there. Steve Trachsel might give the Braves' lineup fits with his forkball, but because of Monday's playoff he'll only start one game, the third or fourth. That leaves them with Mark Clark in the opener and a possible fifth game, and Kevin Tapani in the second. Both are pitching on fumes, and haven't pitched well against the Braves, and they won't have either a strong lineup or a strong defense to help them. By the time they get to their better starters, in Wrigley, the Cubs should be down 2-0.
As if the comparative embarassment of riches the Braves enjoy elsewhere wasn't enough, they don't even have their traditional Achilles heel in the bullpen. Kerry Ligtenberg has been almost automatic since the All-Star break, putting the lie to the time-honored and time-dishonored notion that veteran moxie somehow means something when it comes to getting three guys out. Traction-action hero Rudy Seanez has finally kicked his back problems and has been embarassing people the way scouts have been saying he could since he was drafted by the Indians, during the Reagan administration, when the Bangles were a great band. Chalk another one up to the Braves for getting more out of somebody than anyone else ever could. To back up that tandem, the Braves have a pair of hard throwers in Russ Springer and John Rocker. The danger to this pen is the middle relief. If a Braves starter has to leave early, neither Dennis Martinez or Kevin Millwood are good bets to squelch rallies. Martinez has been hittable all season, and the Cubs have lit up Millwood in the past.
For the Cubs, although they notionally have several people in the bullpen, Jim Riggleman is terrified of bringing in Terry Adams, refuses to let Felix Heredia pitch to more than a left-handed batter or two, and regrets every time he calls upon Matt Karchner. Are all of them struggling? Yes. Has jerking them out of the game at every sign of trouble help them iron those problems out? No. There lies the problem: Riggleman didn't invest the time to iron out anybody's problems, so they've festered. That leaves them with a two-man pen: Terry Mulholland and Rod Beck. Do not be surprised when both of them pitch in every single game in this series. Unfortunately, the Braves seem to have Mulholland's number, and Beck may not have a save opportunity to make interesting.
Although a lot has been made of the Cubs' addition of a veteran bat or two, Glenallen Hill is the only man eligible for the postseason roster (Matt Mieske and Orlando Merced were both left off the roster). Brant Brown and Jeff Blauser will be around, but may not get to do much more than pinch-hit. Manny Alexander will come in for defensive purposes, make outs when asked, and flub the occasional double play.
The Braves' bench is comparatively underrated. First there are Klesko's and Tucker's platoon mates, Gerald Williams and Danny Bautista. They've got Eddie Perez to catch Greg Maddux, and he's quietly enjoyed an outstanding season at the plate. Furthermore, they have two very good pinch-hitters in Greg Colbrunn and Curtis Pride. Ozzie Guillen is probably a better all-around insurance policy at short than Raffy Belliard ever could have been, just in case Weiss' quad problem keeps coming up. Bobby Cox isn't afraid to use anybody, and is more likely to use them to the best advantage of their skills.
Most of this report has been a litany of weaknesses for the Cubs versus a review of the Braves' strengths. That isn't just a reflection of how great this mismatch should be. The Cubs could have a fighting chance in a short series, but to help make that happen they'd have to take big risks, like plugging in their best possible lineups and just giving up on their defense. Instead, they're afraid of using more than quarter of the players on their own playoff roster, and some of "trusted" players just aren't that good in the first place. Operating out of fear is no way to win ballgames.
Braves win in four, with enough hijinks to make Bobby Cox reach for the Maalox and for Cubs fans to recall wistfully for years to come.