Originally created 04/01/97

Braves open at Houston with great expectations



HOUSTON - Watching baseball inside the Astrodome is like watching TV with the sound off.

It's there, it's just not much fun.

A stadium once described as the eighth wonder of the world has plummeted on that list. It's maybe the 1,000th wonder of the world now and all the flower beds and bunting can't hide its ugliness.

Nonetheless, it's where the Atlanta Braves open their season Tuesday, facing an Astros team that was so disappointed at missing the playoffs last year they hauled Larry Dierker out of the broadcast booth and made him manager.

Much has changed for the Braves since last October - actually since last week - while the Astros return largely the same cast. Jeff Bagwell and Derek Bell, who combined for 48 homers and 233 RBI last season, are the power threats, Craig Biggio has taken over as the leadoff hitter and highly touted rookie Bob Abreu moves into left field.

"I look at them as a pesky team with power," said John Smoltz, who will make his second opening day start. "If they get any pitching at all they're going to contend in their division."

Pitching isn't a problem for the Braves. They open up with the game's best rotation and with a bullpen that's somewhat improved over last season. Gone is setup man Greg McMichael, but in his place is hard-throwing left-hander Alan Embree and right-hander Joe Borowski, who lost 25 pounds and added a nasty sinker.

The question is, how long will it take the Braves to learn each other's names? The two trades last week brought in four new faces and prompted Tom Glavine to admit he'll be paying close attention to the introductions during opening day ceremonies.

"If we play good, we have good chemistry," first baseman Fred McGriff said. "If we play bad, we have bad chemistry. To me, it's overrated."

The subtraction of Marquis Grissom and David Justice reduced the club's power, but the addition of Kenny Lofton and Michael Tucker dramatically boosted its speed. This team has more speed any Braves club since Otis Nixon, Deion Sanders and Ron Gant were together earlier this decade.

"It sure doesn't hurt to have speed," manager Bobby Cox said. "Everybody loves to have speed, including me. I like our club. I liked it before the trades and I like it after the trades."

What's not to like? This is a team that has played in four of the last five World Series, yet only seven players remain from the '91 World Series team.

The faces keep changing, but the results remain the same.

"Expectations are high," general manager John Schuerholz said. "It's exciting with the new guys we added to see how it all comes together."

With right-hander Shane Reynolds, a 16-game winner last year, scheduled to start for the Astros, Cox is going with Tucker, his left-handed half of a right field platoon, over rookie Andruw Jones. That's a wise move considering the way Reynolds has manhandled the Braves during the last three seasons. In five games, he's 3-0 with a stingy 1.65 ERA against them.

Smoltz says he likes pitching inside the Dome and his career stats against the Astros prove it. He won three of four starts against them last year and is 12-9 with a 2.83 ERA in 27 career starts.

In Smoltz's mind, he's making his first real opening day start, his only other start coming as the result of a rainout in 1991. He was a 6-4 loser to the Dodgers.

"Being on a staff of four opening day starters, I guess it's a reward for what happened last year," Smoltz said. "I actually hated waiting to start. Now, I get to set the precedent, hopefully on a positive note."

BRAVES LINEUP

Kenny Lofton CF

Mark Lemke 2B

Chipper Jones 3B

Fred McGriff 1B

Ryan Klesko LF

Michael Tucker RF

Javier Lopez C

Jeff Blauser SS

John Smoltz P

ASTROS LINEUP

Craig Biggio 2B

Pat Listach SS

Jeff Bagwell 1B

Derek Bell CF

Luis Gonzalez LF

Sean Berry 3B

Bob Abreu RF

Brad Ausmus C

Shane Reynolds P