ATLANTA - It's a story straight out of make-believe or Hollywood, take your pick.
You know, the timeworn tale of a young chemical engineer who's a pretty fair pitcher and gets a chance when his manager telephones the world champions and offers to trade him for six dozen balls and two dozen bats. Given an opportunity to make it, the young man pitches so well in the minor leagues, the world champs call him up to help out in a pennant race.
You know, the Kerry Ligtenberg story.
In Ligtenberg's case, all of the above is true. He was about to quit baseball two years ago when former Braves catcher Greg Olson, the general manager of the Minneapolis team in the independent Prairie League, called the Braves and convinced them to send a pair of scouts to look at him.
The scouts liked what they saw in the right-hander and a deal was struck: Ligtenberg would join the Braves organization and Olson's team would receive a shipment of bats and balls.
"I'm looking for more now," Olson said Tuesday after Ligtenberg was recalled from Class AAA Richmond (Va.). "I'll be calling the Braves in the next couple of days for a lot more bats and balls."
Said manager Bobby Cox, "If this works out, Greg Olson might be vice-president of the Atlanta Braves."
Ligtenberg, 0-3 with a 4.32 ERA at Richmond, combines power and precision. Throwing a fastball, slider and split-finger, he had 35 strikeouts and only two walks in 25 innings.
"I thought it was kind of amusing what I was traded for," Ligtenberg said. "I was just going to play that summer (for Minneapolis), then get a job."
Ligtenberg, 26, who received his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, had a job waiting for him at 3M. But he gave baseball one more try and was 7-4 with a 2.41 ERA at Class A Durham last year, then started this season at Class AA Greenville and went 3-1 with a 2.04 ERA.
So, two years after Olson convinced him to continue pitching, Ligtenberg arrived in the major leagues and admitted his head was spinning.
"I got called (Monday night) and I didn't sleep at all," he said. "I'm a little uptight. I can't believe it's happening. It was kind of a shock to me. It's been a big change in the last two years."
The Braves sent down right-hander Kevin Millwood and recalled Ligtenberg because they don't need a fifth starter until Aug. 30 in Boston. The plan is for Millwood to get three starts at Richmond, then rejoin the club, pitch against the Red Sox and continue in the rotation for the remainder of the season.
While he's at Richmond, the Braves want Millwood to improve his changeup.
"He has one, but he never used it," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "In the major leagues he's going to have to use it against left-handed hitters. There's no question he looks good. He has a good fastball and slider, but he needs a little better changeup. He more than held his own up here without one."
The Braves headed into Tuesday night's game against the Pirates with the heart of their lineup struggling at the plate. Fred McGriff has nine hits in his last 55 at-bats (.164), Ryan Klesko is 4-for-43 (.093) and Javy Lopez is 3-for-36 (.083).
"Our hits are few and far between right now," manager Bobby Cox said. "I don't know what causes everyone to go slack all at once."
More distressing than the lack of hits is the trio's lack of power. McGriff and Klesko have not homered this month, while Lopez hit his last home run Aug. 5. Klesko's drought is the most ominous. He is without a home run since July 17.
John Smoltz will make tonight's start against the Pirates on three days rest. That's not the problem. The blister on the third finger of his right hand is a problem.
"It's healing up pretty good," Smoltz said. "It could be worse. My elbow could be falling off. I really should have no problem throwing all four pitches. If it was a problem, obviously I wouldn't be doing it."
The blister started bleeding in the seventh inning against the Marlins last Saturday and he left the game after making 110 pitches in eight innings.
"When you throw you feel it," Smoltz said. Obviously in the eighth it prevented me from throwing anymore."
The Braves have 84 stolen bases, one more than the club stole all of last season, but they are without a steal since July 30, a stretch of 12 games. It's the most games without a steal for the Braves since the club went 13 games from Sept. 6-17, 1974 without one.
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