Sunday, September 19, 1999

Braves stand in Mets' way

        This season has been kind to the New York Mets, who have reclaimed the hearts of their fans, earned a recent Sports Illustrated cover story and played themselves into postseason contention.

        None of this will mean much if they can't beat the Atlanta Braves in the next week and a half.

        New York, which began today trailing the Braves by two games in the National League East and leading the Reds by three games in the wild-card race, opens a crucial three-game series in Atlanta on Tuesday. The teams play again in New York Sept.28-30.

        The Mets aren't suffering any delusions of grandeur.

        “We've worked very hard to get ourselves into this position, but we don't have any illusions about who's the team to beat in the National League. It's still the Braves. They're still the best around,” said Mets General Manager Steve Phillips.

        The Mets vividly remember the end of last season, when Atlanta swept three games to prevent them from securing the wild-card spot. Indeed, the Braves own a 13-5 record against New York since 1998, including 4-2 this year.

        Many observers assumed that the Mets would have eliminated themselves by now, due to the often questioned leadership of manager Bobby Valentine. But Valentine actually has received ample support from his players, at least on the surface.

        “You get the feeling, more than with a lot of other managers, that Bobby is really behind you,” catcher Mike Piazza said. “He believes in his players, he talks to us and he shares things with us in the dugout. You hear things about him when you're an opposing player, but the one thing I can say about him is that he trusts his players.”

        Said shortstop Shawon Dunston, a midseason acquisition, “Bobby's a different man than what you hear. I had no idea that he was so gung-ho.”

        WEAK IS GOOD: Atlanta left-hander Tom Glavine began winter workouts a few years ago to strengthen his shoulder and increase his overall fitness. His exercise may have been too effective.

        Glavine's fastball now has gained velocity while losing movement. This has robbed him of the deception that has made him among the NL's best pitchers of this decade.

        “I'm going the other way,” said Glavine, who's 11-11 with a 4.35 ERA after winning last year's Cy Young Award. “Most guys go from being a power pitcher to being a finesse pitcher. I've gone from being a finesse pitcher to a power pitcher.”

        But, Glavine added, “If I pitch well in the playoffs, that's all anybody will remember anyway.”

        CUTS LIKE A KNIFE: Maybe players on non-contending teams accept losing with a nonchalant attitude, but the managers don't. Just ask Terry Francona, whose Philadelphia Phillies have plummeted from 61-48 and wild-card contention to 70-77 and oblivion.

        Francona was a coach on the 1996 Detroit Tigers club that lost 109 games and managed the Phillies when they endured a 4-22 June in 1997. No matter when or how often losing happens, he said, it's never easy.

        “Just because you've been through it in the past doesn't make it any easier,” he said. “It doesn't make you any less competitive. It's awful, just awful. I'm almost consumed by it. When I do sleep at night, it's the first thing I think about when I wake up.

        “Before I even stop to think about what city we're in, I'm worried about what we're doing. I'll call home and my wife will be telling me about the kids and I'll say, "Yeah, yeah.' All I'm thinking about is how we're going to get someone out that night. It definitely consumes you. I wake up every day and my eyes hurt.”

        MARINERS MUTINY?: The chorus of Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, who have expressed a desire to leave the Seattle Mariners if management doesn't dedicate itself to building a winning team, has been joined by another star — Edgar Martinez, who is chasing a third batting title.

        Unlike Griffey and Rodriguez, Martinez, 36, is eligible for free agency after this season. So he'll have to decide quite soon whether it's worth sticking around.

        “Do I want to come back? Yes,” Martinez said. “This is the only team I've ever played for. My wife and I love the area. But I don't want to come back and lose. I have to see a commitment to winning, too.”

        QUICK PITCHES: In case you missed it, Houston Astros manager Larry Dierker intends to go with a four-man pitching rotation for the rest of the season, using either Scott Elarton or Chris Holt with Mike Hampton, Jose Lima and Shane Reynolds. Three scheduled off-days afford Dierker that luxury.

        • The Arizona Diamondbacks, who finished 65-97 last year, are on pace to win 97 games this season. That would be the biggest turnaround since the 1945-46 Boston Red Sox, who rose from 71-83 to 104-50. The return of an outfielder named Ted Williams, who served in World War II, had something to do with that improvement.

        • Colorado's Larry Walker has an excellent shot at winning the unofficial “percentage triple crown.” He entered Saturday leading the NL in batting average (.380), on-base percentage (.460) and slugging percentage (.711). The last player to do this was Kansas City's George Brett in 1980, though it hasn't been done in the NL since St. Louis' Stan Musial achieved the feat in 1943.

        • Cleveland shortstop Omar Vizquel has started producing a line of sportswear for men and women. He and his wife, Nicole, modeled the clothes at a recent fashion show with other players and spouses. “I don't usually get nervous. But I was nervous doing this,” Vizquel said. His garb doesn't come cheaply, as the prices for his jackets ($250-$2,000) indicate. “Wait until you see the lingerie,” Vizquel said.


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