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Building a Championship Team Piece by Piece

The Atlanta Braves win games with a consistent pitching staff, solid defense, and top quality hitters

Team dynasties in baseball, as opposed to individual heroics (San Diego's Tony Gwynn, for example, just won his seventh National League batting crown), are in relatively short supply.

In fact, since 1979, only the Toronto Blue Jays have won consecutive World Series championships. Owners with winning teams may talk openly about dynasties because owners are like that, their giant egos twanging like guitar strings.

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But a manager whose team suddenly gets that kind of treatment from the media would rather hear that a parking lot attendant has just scraped the side of his new Mercedes than admit to having built a better mousetrap.

Permanently welded to that code of modesty is manager Bobby Cox of the defending champion Atlanta Braves, who have already won their division championship five times in the past six years. Only on the road, where Atlanta had a mediocre 40-41 record this year, is there room for improvement. Yet some of those road hazards may have been due to an early 12-game division lead that resulted in a lot or complacency.

The Braves, after having swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs, were scheduled to open the National League's best-of-seven championships series (a 2-3-2 format) against the St. Louis Cardinals in Atlanta last night.

For those fans who put great stock in statistics, the Braves won nine of 13 games against the Cardinals during the regular season.

Also going back to last year, Atlanta has now posted seven consecutive postseason victories at home.

On paper, the Cardinals lack Atlanta's depth and balance. Braves manager Bobby Cox, however, downplays the role his own experience plays. "I don't have any secrets," Cox explains. "I don't know anything that anyone else who fills out a lineup card doesn't know. Basically we all operate about the same way. You build a championship ball club by making it strong through the middle - an absolute truth that has been around for years.

"You need a lot of pitching and defense, especially at shortstop and second base, to make it work. And when I say pitching, I also mean a bullpen that can shut down teams in the late innings."

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When injuries occur, Cox says a team must also be able to move quickly to plug the holes. "When we lost [outfielder] David Justice, our best power hitter [on May 15] for the season," he says, "we were fortunate when a rookie [Jermaine Dye] was able to protect us there well enough to keep us winning."

Managers like Cox, whose laidback personality doesn't find him grabbing for headlines, doesn't sell tickets. But he does win pennants. And except for occasional trips onto the field to question an umpire's decision, Cox has always run his teams with unflappable calm.

Bobby also has the ultimate front-office architect in John Schuerholz, baseball's only current general manager to have won a World Series in both the American and the National leagues (Kansas City in 1985).

Between them, they have built the Braves piece by piece. When one piece breaks or no longer fits the hole designed for it, they find another.

Are the 1996 Braves as good as the 1995 edition that eliminated the Cleveland Indians in six games in the World Series?

No, says Don Sutton, with reservations. A former major league pitcher and now a game analyst for the Braves' television network, Sutton speaks with the authority of someone who won 324 games with the Dodgers, Astros, Brewers, A's, and Angels. He's never been one to soft-pedal his opinions.

"At first the Braves missed Justice a lot," Sutton says. "You don't take a power hitter with his consistency out of the middle of your lineup and not pay a penalty. However, by now a good part his lost production has been replaced by several other Braves.

Actually what makes Atlanta the best team in baseball is its pitching staff even though the bullpen hasn't been as consistent as it was last year.

In particular, Sutton points to starters John Smoltz (24-8), four-time Cy Young award winner Greg Maddux (15-11), Tom Glavine (15-10), and Denny Neagle (16-9), a late-season acquisition from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Teams with pitchers of that caliber (Smoltz is almost certain to win this year's Cy Young award) almost never lose more than two games in a row.

Asked how Smoltz was able to go from 12 victories in 1995 to 24 in 1996, Sutton says, "Smoltz has always had the tools to be a 20-game winner, but this year he hasn't been trying to reinvent the wheel every time he goes to the mound.

Instead, John has been content to get ahead of the hitters, make them reach for his pitches, rely on his fastball in tough situations, and go for outs instead of strikeouts. Basically he has stopped experimenting and stayed with what he knows will work."

While the Braves' bullpen, anchored by righthander Mark Wohlers with 39 saves, struggled occasionally earlier in the season, Cox claims that at this point his top relievers are just as good as they were last season.

Included in that statement is Greg McMichael, the setup man for Wohlers, whose 73 middle-inning relief appearances have kept the Braves in a ton of games.

Teams that consistently win almost always have these six things in common:

*Great pitching, including from the bullpen.

*Good defense, especially through the middle.

*Hitters at the top of the order who consistently get on base, plus three good RBI men backing them up.

*The ability to win a high number of one-run games.

*The ability to play well on the road.

*The ability to play equally well on grass or artificial turf.

Give the Braves five of six in the above rundown, the Cardinals no more than three.

At the risk of being arrested in Atlanta, I would like to point out that the Braves (Babe Ruth finished his career in Boston in 1935) in reality are still a colony of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Until 1953, when the franchise was moved to Milwaukee, they were the Boston Braves.

The Braves were next annexed to Atlanta in 1966, where in 1969 (by winning their division) they made the South forget grits, Sherman, and Steven Foster for at least a couple of weeks.

While the Braves were never as popular in Boston as the Red Sox, there are still fans in Beantown who would welcome the return of the franchise. All these people can probably trace their ancestors to the starting lineup that in 1773 turned Boston Harbor into the world's largest tea kettle.

As Casey Stengel used to say, "You can look it up."

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