On Sports September 30 2000

Cox’s postseason pitching puzzle

Greg Maddux struck out a career-high 13 hitters Saturday in Montreal, where the 4,000 remaining fans of les Expos were no doubt thrilled by the masterful pitching performance, which has now stretched to 36.1 scoreless innings. It’s not too soon to start thinking about the Cy Young Award. Tom Glavine’s Cy Young chances may have rocketed into the Arizona night along with that home run he gave up to Jay Bell, during Glavine’s matchup with Randy Johnson two weeks ago. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Braves are making their ninth consecutive postseason appearance on the strength of his and Maddux’s arms. Home-run hitters may put fans in the seats, but championships are won with pitching and defense.
The Braves are in the postseason for the ninth consecutive year and, for the ninth consecutive year, manager Bobby Cox’s playoff pitching rotation decision looms.
Maddux has emerged once again as the Braves’ No. 1 starter. The aberrant pair of games when he gave up five first-inning runs is history. (He never lost his touch, but he did have a banged-up foot and a stiff neck that had to affect him, no matter what he says. And he would never admit to an injury.)
Glavine is one of the great clutch pitchers of all time. No matter his record, he’s the one you want on the mound if you absolutely, positively must win.
Those two are automatic. Then who? Whether Cox goes with a three- of four-man starting rotation in October, he’s left with these choices: Kevin Millwood, Andy Ashby and John Burkett.
Millwood is this year’s hard-luck pitcher. Most games, he’s pitched well enough to win, but either the offense hasn’t come through or the bullpen has blown the lead. Inconsisten-cies in his delivery (mainly his stance) and occasional wavering confidence have made this a disappointing season for him.
Ashby has been terrific or terrible. Terrible when he’s aggravated a blood blister on his pitching hand; terrible when he’s had a large lead. When Ashby gets too many runs, he tries to be perfect, and you’ve seen how that turns out.
That leaves Burkett, the journeyman. He’s never quite sure when he’s pitching because Cox is never quite sure when he’s pitching; it depends on the schedule and injury. Doesn’t bother Burkett. He can go on three days’ rest, he can go on six. Emergency reliever? Burkett needs only three warm-up pitches.
Millwood has the right mental makeup for the postseason but he’s not in a groove; Ashby has complete-game stamina but not the mental tenacity. There isn’t any one thing that Burkett does better; he’s just savvy, that’s all. With a championship on the line, which do you think matters more?
Hot shots:
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