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News - Not this year

For all of you wondering when the Braves' decade-long run of National League and assorted championships was going to end, the answer is ... now.

I'm not saying that because the Mets caught the Braves in the standings last week; I'm saying it because the Mets are a better team this year. Better than they were last year, better than the Braves are this year.

Their starting pitching is better than the Braves'. Their defense is better than the Braves'. Their bullpen is deeper than the Braves', and a lot better, too. And this year, for the first time, the Mets know they can beat the Braves. That, more than anything, is the difference in the Mets this season.

The Metropolitans' new confidence didn't come from acquiring pitcher Mike Hampton in the off-season, or from their July trade-deadline coup, picking up shortstop Mike Bordick in the Orioles' fire sale. It materialized at Shea Stadium on Friday, June 30, in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Mets, down 8-1, scored 10 runs to beat the Braves 11-8.

That four of those runs came against reliever Don Wengert, shipped to AAA Richmond two days later, is irrelevant. The other six came against Kerry Ligtenberg and Terry Mulholland who, along with Mike Remlinger, are the bullpen's backbone. Ligtenberg and Mulholland have had and will continue to have better days, but that, too, is irrelevant. The point is that the Mets aren't afraid of them, or of anyone else in the bullpen. (Don't even think about John Rocker; no one on the Braves wants him to be the closer. No one.)

Every year when the Braves hit this slump — and they do, every championship team does, thanks to injuries and fatigue — the one thing that has remained in the Braves' favor is this: Despite their momentarily abysmal offensive output, who is going to beat them?

In 1997, the year of the Marlins, the Braves beat themselves with fundamental baserunning and fielding errors. In 1998 and '99, the Yankees were clearly the superior team, so much of a conundrum that Bobby Cox made the fatal error of changing how he platooned players and relievers in the World Series, a move that made even his coaches tentative.

This is not about the Braves being a lousy team; that's ridiculous. They have absorbed the critical losses of John Smoltz and Quilvio Veras to maintain, as this is written, a tie with the Mets and White Sox for the best record in baseball. The Braves are a great team, a championship-caliber team. But the Mets are going to beat them in October. The spell has been broken.

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Hot shots

What has Atlanta's sports scene buzzing ...??
28 — Age of defending national champion Florida State's QB Chris Weinke. Am I the only one who thinks it's time for this guy to get a life? Or, at least, a job?

This week's wife-beater — Bengals running back Corey Dillon. He told the team he'd be late for practice last week. He neglected to mention it was because he'd been arrested for punching out his wife.

$736,000 — The NBA minimum salary for veterans with seven years' experience. That's what J.R. Rider got for signing with the Lakers. He claims he turned down $2.25M with the Heat because — all together now — it's not about the money.

It was an even darker and stormier night — Georgia Tech vs. Virginia Tech bites the dust when intense lightning forces the cancellation of the season's first game. The silver lining: Lee Corso's car is struck by lightning in the stadium parking lot.

"They're still the 49ers." — Said three times in a 15 minute pre-game press conference by Dan Reeves. He doesn't mention that the Falcons are still the Falcons.

Fantasy league — Who would you rather have on your team: Kordell Stewart or Kent Graham?





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