ATLANTA - Since losing four straight World Series games to the New York Yankees four years ago, the postseason has rarely worked out the way it's scripted on Hank Aaron Drive.
For a team whose slogan coming out of spring every year is seemingly "World Series Or Bust", there has been more misery than merriment during October in the past four years.
That sweep by the Yankees in the 1999 World Series. The Cardinals' three-game rout in the Division Series in 2000. An NLCS loss in five games to the eventual World Series champion Diamondbacks the next year. The Division Series defeat in five games to the Giants a year ago.
But the Braves believe this is their year, pointing to a record-setting offense and a pitching staff that was mediocre by past standards but finished with four shutouts in the final nine games.
However, this is a team that has run red-hot for three weeks, then dropped into a deep freeze for 10 days. If the latter club shows up for tonight's start of the best-of-five Division Series against the Chicago Cubs, winter might come tap-tap-tapping on the Braves' door far earlier than anyone expects.
"Believe me, the players (here) are not happy unless they're winning World Series," said 21-game winner Russ Ortiz, who will take the mound for Game 1. "They go to the playoffs year after year. This year is no different. I think we fully expect to win a World Series. Anything less is not going to be good enough."
THE TWO KEYS to the Braves' offense are leadoff man Rafael Furcal and No. 2 hitter Marcus Giles. The pair, who combined to score 231 runs, are the reasons why Gary Sheffield broke Hank Aaron's Atlanta RBI record, why Chipper Jones knocked in 100 runs for an eighth straight season, and why Andruw Jones drove in a career-high 116 runs.
But what makes this Braves team unique from its 11 division-winning predecessors is the bottom of the order - Javy Lopez, the first baseman tandem of Robert Fick and Julio Franco, and Vinny Castilla. There was a decided drop in run production after the No. 5 hitter last year; there's no easy out in the current version.
Lopez set a major league record for catchers with 42 home runs, the Fick-Franco combo contributed 16 home runs and 111 RBI, and Castilla went deep 22 times and knocked in 76.
"Our pitchers got along a lot of years with one or two runs, but I think it makes them feel better knowing they can give up three runs and our hitters can come back," Cox said. "There were some records we were breaking on the same day (this season) and we didn't know who to give the game ball to."
"We should score runs," Chipper Jones said. "We feel confident that we can go out and score runs against anybody. We had a lot less 3-2 and 4-3 games this year, and a lot more 10-7 games, but we're going to have to revert back to winning 3-2 games this postseason."
HOWEVER, CHICAGO'S pitching staff compiled a better ERA (3.83) than the Braves (4.10) for the first time since 1990 - the year before the Braves began their run of a dozen consecutive division titles.
So, how did the Braves fare this season against Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano, and Mark Prior, the Cubs' young starters lined up to face them in the first three games?
Wood is 2-0 with a 1.74 ERA in three career starts at Turner Field, but has not faced the Braves since 2001. Zambrano, the Venezuelan right-hander, was torched for eight hits and seven runs in five innings in his only start against the Braves this season. Prior left his July start after 4 2/3 innings following a collision with Giles, allowing six runs on six hits.
Surprisingly, Castilla - and not 132-RBI man Sheffield - led all Braves' hitters against the Cubs this season, blistering them for a .565 average and 12 RBI in just 23 at-bats. Sheffield batted a measly .111 and failed to knock in a run.
"They haven't had a chance to see me this year," said Wood, who finished with a 14-11 record and 3.20 ERA, and struck out whiffed 266 batters in 211 innings. "I think I'm a different pitcher than even last year when I faced them. It's a solid lineup, there's no doubt about that. We don't expect to have a whole lot of big innings in the postseason. It's just a matter of not making any mistakes and making your pitches."
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