Originally created 09/25/98

Ligtenberg helps save the Braves



ATLANTA -- Kerry Ligtenberg won't be named the National League's Rookie of the Year.

It's a foregone conclusion that Colorado's Todd Helton or Chicago's Kerry Wood will take the award. But it's a measure of his extraordinary season that Ligtenberg, the Atlanta Braves' closer, is even being mentioned in the same sentence with the words Rookie of the Year.

Ligtenberg, who was pitching in an independent league three years ago, is the first NL rookie since Todd Worrell in 1986 to collect 30 saves. His save total ranks seventh in the league, and he's limited opposing hitters to a .196 batting average.

He's drawn rave reviews from manager Bobby Cox, from managers around the league and from a group of Cy Young winners who say they feel comfortable turning a lead over to him.

"He's done a great job," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "He's done all that's been asked of him and more."

"He's done well under difficult circumstances," Marlins manager Jim Leyland said. "Not only does he have the pressure of saving games, he has the pressure of saving games for Cy Young winners every night."

The only question remaining is, how will Ligtenberg handle playoff pressure? He appeared in a pair of league championship games against the Marlins last October, pitching three scoreless innings, but he wasn't in the closer's role. With 50,000 fans screaming and a one-run lead in the ninth, how will the rookie react?

"The way I look at it is, the playoffs are real intense, it's do or die every night," he said. "I'm not going to change anything I've been doing. I'm not worried about it at all. It's going to be fun."

While Ligtenberg is a rookie, he doesn't act or pitch like one. Whether his maturity is a result of three years at the University of Minnesota studying chemical engineering or two summers barnstorming around the Midwest with former Braves catcher Greg Olson and his Prairie League team, it's evident not much bothers him.

Ligtenberg says he learned a valuable lesson earlier this season when he blew a save in the game that would have allowed Dennis Martinez to tie the record for wins by a Latin American pitcher. Now he doesn't think in terms of individual accomplishments, he thinks only of collecting another save.

"Some of my buddies have asked me the same thing," he said. "I don't look at it as a Maddux game or a Glavine game. I look at it like I'm a member of the team and I'm trying to do a job for the team. I don't look at it as I might cost someone a Cy Young if I don't save it."

So, each ninth inning looks exactly like the one before it. Ligtenberg has blown only four saves and he's pitched more 1-2-3 ninth innings than Cox can remember this decade. He makes one of the toughest jobs in baseball appear easy, his expression one of studious concentration, regardless of the situation.

"A lot of closers are really fired up and emotional out there," Ligtenberg said. "Inside I'm fired up, but I don't show it. When I go into a game, basically all I see is the catcher's glove. Afterward, it's kind of like I'm in a trance. I have all this energy and I have to go work out to calm down before I can talk to anybody."

Most of the time he lets his pitches do his talking for him.