ATLANTA - This is one of those weekends when comparisons are inevitable and the "what if" game is irresistible.
What if Kevin Millwood had accepted the Atlanta Braves' three-year, $25 million offer last winter? Would Russ Ortiz still be Atlanta's ace or Millwood?
Did Millwood's trade to the Philadelphia Phillies for backup catcher Johnny Estrada play a role in Javy Lopez's sudden attention to his physique and emergence as the game's best-hitting catcher?
Thus, the question: Who got the better of the deal?
Better yet, how much fun is it to be the Braves these days?
"I'd say this team ranks right up there with teams we've had in the past," left fielder Chipper Jones said. "Certainly, it's the best offensive team. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a team that didn't have any weaknesses, other than in '95 when we won the World Series."
A day off to collect themselves? Center fielder Andruw Jones would have preferred the Braves didn't get a break in the schedule Thursday.
"We just want to get the season over with and start the postseason," said Andruw Jones, who joins his teammates in Philadelphia tonight in the opener of a three-game set at Veterans Stadium. "We feel good about ourselves and think this is the year. I think everybody thinks we have the team to go all the way."
The Braves - who open the National League Division Series on Tuesday at Turner Field - have the confident air of champions. But lingering in the back of everyone's minds are their repeated failures, their inability to advance past the first round of the playoffs in two of the past three years, their losses to the Florida Marlins, San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks in the championship series and their one World Series triumph in five tries.
Gazing at the division championship flags, pennants and single Series banner displayed above left field at Turner Field, general manager John Schuerholz muttered recently, "Just one more World Series, just one more."
The biggest moments this season have come from the hitters, a rather abrupt departure from the pitching-and-defense clubs of the past. As Chipper Jones noted after Wednesday night's 9-1 drubbing of the Montreal Expos, "It seems like every time somebody gets a hit they're flashing something up on the Jumbotron. This team is probably going to be remembered as the best offensive team that ever played here."
Before FOX grabs hold of the numbers and turns them into a reality show, here they are in all their gaudy grandness:
So, the question is: Can the Braves bash their way to the World Series rather than depend on 21-game winner Russ Ortiz and a cast of thousands in the bullpen?
"That's a good question," Sheffield said. "A lot of teams would love to have four or five Cy Young winners in their rotations, but that's not realistic. Most clubs win without that.
"Now, you've got to score some runs to win, and we're going to score runs. Our record shows that our pitching is not so bad. Our guys are capable of throwing a shutout. But I think the hitters have got to take it on their shoulders to get it done, like the pitchers did in the past."
The bash-and-pray approach does work. The New York Yankees beat the Mets in the 2000 Series, despite a 4.76 ERA during the regular season. And, the Bronx Bombers beat the Braves in '96 (4.65) and '99 (4.13) despite unsightly ERAs.
The Braves will head into the postseason having scored more runs than any team that has appeared in the World Series in the past 32 years, with the exception of the Yankees in 1998. Only three teams have won a Series during that span with a higher ERA than Atlanta's 4.12.
The 50-26 record of the Braves' Big Three starters - Ortiz, Mike Hampton, and Greg Maddux - compare favorably with last year's trio of Maddux, Millwood, and Tom Glavine (52-25). The bullpen is not as strong, but the offense might make the relievers irrelevant.
"If our starters bring their 'A' game to the playoffs for three weeks to a month, that's enough," Chipper Jones said. "The teams we're going to be facing in the postseason are ones we've scored runs against during the season. We score runs against anybody. We feel confident we're going to score the necessary amount of runs to win."
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