ATLANTA - This is not how Mike Hampton, Paul Byrd, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, and Vladimir Guerrero expected to begin the season - nursing injuries and serving a suspension for fighting.
This afternoon, as the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos meet on Opening Day at Turner Field, the three pitchers and All-Star outfielder will watch from the bench.
"I know they are large shoes to fill for a few days," Expos manager Frank Robinson said of starting rookie Ron Calloway in right field for Guerrero. "We'll get the shock treatment. I know one thing, it won't be any fun."
Greg Maddux, who is 6-0 with a 1.66 ERA in seven Opening Day starts, couldn't hide his glee at Guerrero's absence from the Expos lineup. Guerrero, whose three-game suspension for sparking a March 10 brawl with the Florida Marlins was reduced to two games, is a lifetime .322 hitter who has averaged 39 home runs and 116 RBI in five full seasons in the major leagues.
"He is arguably the best hitter in the league, and if you don't believe he's the best hitter in the league, then certainly he's in the top five," Maddux said. "Any lineup would miss not having him."
In most discussions of the game's best hitters, especially those who combine power and average, one wouldn't get very far before you get to Guerrero's name. Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Todd Helton, Chipper Jones, and ... Guerrero.
"It's definitely a plus for us that we don't have to see the monster in the No. 3 hole," Braves infielder Mark DeRosa said.
It is subject to change, given the ever-present possibility of fragile elbows and exercise injuries, but the Braves' rotation after Maddux will feature one proven winner (Russ Ortiz), one rookie (Horacio Ramirez) and a pitcher whose career is still a coin toss (Jason Marquis).
This is the second time since the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966 they have faced the start of a season with two starters on the disabled list (in 2000, Odalis Perez and John Smoltz were on the DL) Byrd, who has been sidelined with a tender elbow, is expected to rejoin the rotation this week. Hampton strained his right calf running on a treadmill Friday and will probably miss three weeks.
Regardless of the state of the rotation, Maddux will enjoy his Opening Day assignment.
"It's cool. Opening Day is different," he said. "It's very special the first time you go out there. It's almost like you get a chance to do it again."
In the Expos, Maddux is drawing a team he generally loves facing: 23-15, 2.41 lifetime, including a 1-0, 2.42 mark last season, when he gave up six earned runs in four starts. Three years ago in September, he struck out 13 Expos, and in 1998 he recorded his 2,000 strikeout against Montreal.
For a dozen years, the Braves have been one of the premier teams in baseball.First in the major leagues in regular-season wins, they have been a team that hasn't known the feeling of being second-best.
No one played in more World Series in the '90s than the Braves, but the team hasn't played in the fall classic since 1999, and it hasn't gotten out of the first round of the playoffs in two of the past three years.
At the start of their 38th season in Atlanta, the Braves expect a revamped pitching staff, a new first baseman (Robert Fick), and a galvanized Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla to end their penchant for October failure.
"The fact that you're winning and there are people in the stands, it's exciting," said Fick, who spent his first two full seasons in the big leagues with the sad-sack Detroit Tigers. "It's like free adrenalin."
Lopez and Castilla would give a significant boost to a lineup that batted .260 and averaged 4.4 runs per game last season.
"We're a much better team with Javy and Vinny hitting. We're already a relaxed team, but it would put us in relaxed overdrive if they hit," right fielder Gary Sheffield said.
"The thing is, when you look at the Braves of the past, Javy was a big contributor. With him hitting, not as much emphasis was put on the guys in the middle of the lineup. You don't win 11 championships in a row with only one part of your lineup hitting."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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