SAN DIEGO -- On a club with World Series aspirations, the guys seated on the bench are going to play a huge role in the postseason.
Or maybe not.
If the Atlanta Braves have a weakness, aside from not having Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez, Kerry Ligtenberg or Rudy Seanez available, it's a bench that's produced a .187 pinch hitting average. It hurt during consecutive losses to the Giants over the weekend and as the Braves headed into Monday night's opener of a three-game series against the Padres, no answer was in sight.
In the playoffs, that lack of production can be the death of a team.
Remember the 1996 postseason? Atlanta's bench was 0-for-22 and the season ended with a six-game loss to the Yankees in the World Series.
In spring training it appeared the Braves had addressed their weak bench by adding Otis Nixon, Brian Hunter and Randall Simon to a group that included Ozzie Guillen, Keith Lockhart, Gerald Williams and Eddie Perez. But then came Galarraga's cancer and a rash of injuries and suddenly several backup players were regulars and the bench was stretched as thin as Ally McBeal.
When an opposing team starts a left-hander, Hunter is pressed into service at first base. Williams is the regular in left field and Perez is the catcher. Until a week ago the bench had a decidedly left-handed air to it. Realizing they had virtually no right-handed hitters in reserve, the Braves called up rookie Howard Battle, then added Freddy Garcia last week.
But the Braves still have a weak bench. Without regular at-bats, Lockhart, the club's best pinch hitter, has struggled in the clutch, producing a .222 average, only .176 from the seventh inning on. Guillen's average as a pinch hitter is .148 and Simon's inability to come off the bench and hit is especially glaring as he's managed just one hit in 16 at-bats as a pinch hitter.
Nixon isn't much better (.133), leaving Hunter as the club's best pinch hitter, at least by average (.250). Looking ahead to the postseason, the group doesn't inspire a lot of confidence for pulling out a win with a late-inning clutch hit against closers like Houston's Billy Wagner or Arizona's Matt Mantei.
The problem is actually worse than it appears because manager Bobby Cox has been unable to get Lockhart & Co. many at-bats because of a tight pennant race. The regulars have remained in place and the pinch hit at-bats have been spare, leaving a bench largely unprepared for the postseason.
"We got guys who are pretty hot right now and you hate to take them out of the lineup while they're hot," Cox said. "Yet, the other guys do need a little playing time to stay sharp, so that's always in the back of my mind."
The problem of playing time for the bench players has actually worsened this month because the Braves have had three straight Thursdays off, which gives the regulars a needed rest and eliminating the need for a backup player to step into the lineup.
"You don't rest many guys because they're getting a day off," Cox said. "They're fresh, so it prevents the guys that could use a game from getting a game. It's a Catch-22."
It's a weakness that may catch up with the Braves in the postseason.
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