Originally created 09/13/98

Braves win with help from rookie



ATLANTA -- This is the time of year when you don't need tarot cards to reveal the future.

It's right there in front of you, dressed in an Atlanta Braves uniform and trying to affix a veteran's expression on youthful features.

So it goes every September. Occasionally the rookies stick around. Most times they don't.

Bruce Chen will be around next year. And the year after and the year after that. There's nothing standing between him and membership in a rather exclusive group except three Cy Young winners, a 20-game winner and a second-year pitcher with 15 wins.

Nevertheless, remember the name. Chen, as in win.

The 21-year-old left-hander made his second major league start a Kodak moment Saturday night with a performance reminiscent of any of the Braves' Fab Four. Chen overmatched the Florida Marlins and beat last October's World Series MVP for his first win, striking out seven en route to a 4-2 victory before a sellout crowd of 48,797 fans at Turner Field.

"Obviously, he's a very, very talented kid and he's only 21 years old," manager Bobby Cox said.

The win, coupled with the Mets' 5-3 loss to the Expos, dropped the Braves' magic number to one. They can clinch a seventh straight division title this afternoon with Greg Maddux on the mound in the series finale.

Chen pitched into the seventh inning, then turned the game over to the bullpen. Dennis Martinez, who started his pro career in 1974, three years before Chen was born, retired all five men he faced, then Kerry Ligtenberg pitched the ninth for his 27th save.

"It feels great, my first major league win and helping the team get in a groove," Chen said. "I think I can get better. That comes with experience. I can be different four years from now."

In his debut last Monday against the Mets, Chen couldn't keep his pitches down and fell behind hitters consistently. This was a different left-hander. He showed off a hard fastball and an old-fashioned curve that swept in and dropped, kept the Marlins off-balance and when he needed a big pitch, he made it.

He stranded two runners in the first inning with a strikeout of Derrek Lee and forced a fly from Kevin Orie, then ducked trouble the next inning with two more strikeouts.

Chen yielded a two-out homer to Lee in the third, a nine-iron shot that struck the left field foul pole net, then walked Orie. He showed a measure of maturity by steadying himself and striking out Preston Wilson to end the rally.

"He looks like an Atlanta Braves pitcher," Marlins manager Jim Leyland said. "He uses both sides of the plate, changes speeds, used his changeup. I was impressed. He didn't look in awe of anything. He looked pretty poised."

The youngster showed more maturity in the fifth after issuing a leadoff walk to Luis Castillo and an RBI triple to Mark Kotsay. With his lead down to only two runs, Chen struck out Lee and coaxed a grounder from Orie, stranding Kotsay at third.

"He got some strikeouts with a little extra on it," Cox said."I guess he has that ability to reach back and get a little extra and that's a good trait to have."

Chen got all the support he needed in the first inning when Marlins starter Livan Hernandez balked home a run and Ryan Klesko pulled his 18th homer, a two-run shot, deep into the right field stands.

Hernandez (10-12), who will forever be remembered in Atlanta as the pitcher who benefited from Eric Gregg's enormous strike zone and beat the Braves with a 15-strikeout performance in Game 5 of the NLCS last October, hasn't had any success against them since then.

The right-hander, 3-8 with a 5.92 ERA since the All-Star break, was a 6-4 loser to the Braves on July 9. Klesko got him again in the third, sending an RBI double into left field, giving the Braves a 4-1 advantage.

Klesko, who went six weeks without a home run, has hit two in the last week.

"I've had so many different stances since coming back from (appendix) surgery," he said. "I'm just trying to find it again. I just want to get my swing ready for the postseason. If I can do that, I think my stats will improve by the time the season is over."

For all of you looking past October, figure Chen into Atlanta's future.