Strong starts from the Big Three:
The Braves went three and out to the Cardinals last year when their starting pitching (and defense) fell apart in the division series. If Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Burkett duplicate their regular-season success, the Braves will be in good shape. But if any of the trio falters, placing pressure on a tepid offense and bullpen to shoulder a bigger share of the load, watch out. The Braves will not win unless they receive terrific starting pitching, which removes the pressure on the offense to score five or six runs.
Putting bat to ball:
An offense that spent much of the season spinning its wheels doesn't figure to suddenly turn into Murderer's Row. But neither should it be considered the team's weakest link. Count on Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan to hit. What's up in the air is whether the club will receive contributions from anybody else. If the Braves are to advance to the World Series, they will need their 1-2 hitters, Marcus Giles and Julio Franco, to reach base consistently, and a trio of hitters behind Jones and Jordan -- B.J. Surhoff, Andruw Jones and Rey Sanchez -- to produce in the clutch.
The bullpen must deliver:
The Braves say this is the deepest bullpen they have ever had. That's debatable, but what's not in question is the impact John Smoltz has had in the closer's role. He's been so dominant, the team feels that if it gets to the ninth inning with a lead, the game is over. The problem is getting there. The bullpen blew 22 saves this season, and the four relievers in setup roles - Mike Remlinger, Steve Karsay, Kerry Ligtenberg and Steve Reed - were responsible for seven of those blown saves. If the setup guys keep it close, Smoltz can be counted on to put it away.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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