PHOENIX - If there is one last party in October, the Braves don't want it to be here in the desert.
If payback for last year's loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Championship Series is foremost in the Braves' minds, it starts here in a size-them-up series at Bank One Ballpark.
"It's a fun series," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "I think there's a little more excitement and anticipation because we all enjoy a challenge. These two teams have played the best since the All-Star break, but either team winning two of three or sweeping won't mean much. Players in general, and especially on this team, tend to live in the now."
The Diamondbacks have one more win than the Braves since the All-Star break, and feature the league's most potent offense, averaging 5.1 runs per game.
Arizona took two of three from the Braves in April at Turner Field, Curt Schilling won the series opener, and Rick Helling handed Greg Maddux his first loss of the season in the series finale. The Braves also lost five of seven regular-season games to the Diamondbacks last year, then were unable to overcome 6-foot-10 left-hander Randy Johnson and Schilling in the NLCS, losing the series 4-1.
The Braves say they aren't dredging up last year's memories to build excitement for this series. It's business as usual, several players insisted.
"One of 162 games, no more, no less," Maddux said. "I think that's why we win every year. We play the best teams and worst teams with the same intensity. That's why we don't look sloppy when we play the worst teams in the league.
"After the third game here, we're going to hop on a plane and go play the Astros and do the same thing all over again."
Schilling, who faced Kevin Millwood in the series opener Tuesday night, and Johnson own 34 of Arizona's 69 wins. They are the most formidable 1-2 punch in the big leagues, combining power and precision, league leaders in wins and strikeouts.
In this series, the Braves have the pitching edge. They will send their big three - Millwood, Maddux and Glavine - to the mound, while the Diamondbacks counter with Schilling, Helling, and Brian Anderson.
Johnson, who struck out 11 Mets Monday, won't pitch in the series. The absence of Johnson means the Braves won't face him this year unless the teams meet in October.
"Even if you've faced him 10 times, it doesn't make it any easier," second baseman Keith Lockhart said. "Maybe it helps us not to face him because of the unfamiliarity of some of our hitters to him."
Maddux is the Braves' hottest pitcher, having lost just once since May 21. He has struggled against the Diamondbacks, dropping five of six career decisions with a 5.32 ERA.
"He always goes through one of these 15-game rolls where he's unhittable," said Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace, a former teammate of Maddux with the Chicago Cubs. "He's a lot like Schilling except for the velocity. He's good at everything. He doesn't walk many people or give up many extra-base hits. In order to beat him, you got to get three hits in an inning or exploit one of his weaknesses, which is not holding runners on base.
"He's the best fielder (among pitchers) in the game. He and Glavine get a lot of ground balls. They can get in trouble and out of trouble because of their ability to get the double-play ball."
The Diamondbacks are more than just their two staff aces. Second baseman Junior Spivey is among league leaders with a .323 batting average. Left fielder Luis Gonzalez has 24 home runs and 86 RBI. Craig Counsell is hitting .284 with 51 RBI.
Like the Braves, the Diamondbacks feature a lineup of veteran hitters. Arizona has an advantage offensively, but the Braves counter with a superior rotation and a deeper bullpen.
"We've played well, we've got a good lead, and all we're trying to do is keep playing as well as we can," Glavine said. "And that's all the Diamondbacks are trying to do too."
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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