The Braves had barely nailed down their 13th straight divisional title before the inevitable question was posed: who pitches in October?
In essence, Atlanta's rotation turned itself upside down in the final month, the bottom of the staff out-performing the top. Manager Bobby Cox has traditionally left the postseason to his workhorses. Thus staff is all different.
RHP Russ Ortiz has been a wreck, going 1-2 in five September starts with a 26 hits and 18 runs allowed in 25.1 innings. He also yielded eight homers in those five games.
LHP Mike Hampton, who was shelved for nearly two weeks after tearing cartilage in his left knee, pitched well in a comeback game (seven scoreless innings on Sept. 25) but his durability is unknown.
Traditionally going with a three-man rotation in a short series, Cox must figure out how to deploy a lessened Ortiz and Hampton, while his other starters have been pitching better. RHP John Thomson is a lock, unbeaten in four September starts with a 1.38 ERA. Paul Byrd, a surprising second-half anchor after returning from Tommy John surgery, was 3-1 with a 2.27 ERA in September.
And RHP Jaret Wright, the only reliable power pitcher in the rotation, slumped to a 2-2 last-month record but struck out 30 in four starts. Over the course of the year, Wright was the most dependable arm in the rotation, remarkable for a troubled veteran who reported to spring camp uncertain he had a place on the club.
Last October, Cox went with a logical rotation of Ortiz, Hampton and Greg Maddux, Between them, they won just one game in five. Cox's choices aren't nearly as clear this season. And his margin for failure is slimmer.
If there is some advantage over 2003, it may be that this club has demonstrated a higher sense of accomplishment, after being written off by so many after two poor opening months.
"This is nice, but it's only part of our goal," 2B Marcus Giles said the night the team clinched. "Our main goal is to have three more champagne parties (through the World Series), and I won't be satisfied until then."
Notes from Atlanta:
- The Braves clinching of another division title was tempered the next night, when INF Mark DeRosa tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. With recovery time from ACL surgery usually bracketed at 12 months, his future with the franchise is unclear.
But DeRosa's loss opens up a spot on the postseason roster. In the past, utility infielder Jesse Garcia has been an automatic October addition. But the Braves released the veteran in early September and have no veteran to fill DeRosa's infielders role. He had played 3B, 2B and SS this season.
- RHP Chris Reitsma broke the franchise record for pitching appearances with his 82nd game. A set-up man to closer John Smoltz all season, Reitsma broke Brad Clontz's record of 81, set in 1996. Reitsma had never pitched in more than 57 games in his three seasons with the Cincinnati Reds.
SS Alex Gonzalez continues to lead National League shortstops in homers and RBIs. Friday, Gonzalez extended his career best with his 22nd and 23rd blasts as part of a three-RBI night.
Gonzalez needs one RBI to establish a standard of 78 in that category as well.
"I wanted to put up the same numbers I did last year," said Gonzalez, who put 18 in the seats and drove in 77 in 2003. "I broke my personal best (for homers). My goal was to tie it or break it. I don't want to pressure myself to hit homeruns."
If not for a sluggish start that saw Gonzalez hit .198 through May 20, he said he might have surpassed the 25-homer mark by now. Gonzalez believes that's a realistic target for 2005 and beyond.
Manager Jack McKeon would like to see him hit fewer homers and raise his average 15 points. Thanks to a 5-for-38 skid, Gonzalez took a .233 mark into the weekend.
In addition, Gonzalez's .271 on-base percentage is the majors' lowest among players with 3.1 plate appearances per game.
"The average isn't what I was anticipating this year," Gonzalez said. "I started out slow, and at this stage you get two or three hits and it doesn't go up too much. Raising the average a little and with my RBI, for an eight hitter I think that's good."
Notes from Florida:
- Juan Pierre beat out an infield single for his 205th hit, breaking the franchise record he set last year.
- Dontrelle Willis (10-11, 4.01) allowed six runs in six innings Sunday. He'll get one more start to finish the season, which has been a disappointment after winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2003 for going 14-6 with a 3.30 ERA.
Willis, who last won on Sept. 16, hasn't put together consecutive winning starts since he started the season 3-0.
- Juan Encarnacion, who missed Saturday and Sunday's games, has decided to have offseason surgery on his left shoulder to repair a damaged labrum and remove bone spurs.
A native of the Dominican Republic, Encarnacion is considering spending the bulk of the offseason in South Florida rehabilitating the injury. He hopes to return by spring training.
Encarnacion has played through pain and watched his numbers suffer as a result. His .300 on-base percentage through Friday was tied for the third-lowest among National League hitters with at least 3.1 plate appearances per game.
Since rejoining the Marlins, he is hitting .239 (38 for 159) with three homers and 19 RBI. Saturday, Encarnacion got the day off to rest his barking shoulder.
- Manager Jack McKeon is losing patience with his pitchers throwing the changeup in the wrong counts or situations. In Florida's 9-8 loss Thursday, he was angry with Guillermo Mota and Josh Beckett. Mota gave up two home runs on change-ups thrown on 3-2 counts. McKeon said Beckett used the pitch when he should have relied on his fastball.
"All of our power pitchers are trying to be tricksters. 'You can't touch a fastball, then we're gonna trick them.' Disappointing," McKeon said.
"Beckett was breezing, throwing fastballs right by them after the first inning. Well, maybe someday the light will flash on and he'll realize that 'I've been successful this way, so why am I trying to outsmart myself?'"
Asked if he agreed with McKeon's critique, Beckett curtly replied, "No, I don't agree with it."
- The Marlins were relieved to get out of town ahead of Hurricane Jeanne, expected to be the fourth storm to hit the state since August. Florida's final home game was Thursday.
- 3B Mike Lowell said he likes McKeon's idea of scheduling more off days in September as potential make-up days.
"I've always been a fan of that," Lowell said. "It's the toughest month of the year with the most riding on it."
- Lowell expressed irritation that the Marlins are playing their final 10 games on the road.
"That's terrible to have the defending champion finish with 10 games on the road," Lowell said. "That's the difference big teams get with respect. It might be our place on the totem pole."
The schedule was made several months before the Marlins won the World Series, however. But the Marlins certainly didn't get much respect when Major League Baseball moved three home games to Chicago while forcing the Marlins to play three doubleheaders in 11 days and 30 games in 27 days overall because of problems related to hurricanes Frances and Ivan.
- Lenny Harris furthered his case that he has plenty left for a 17th major league season Thursday. Career pinch hit number 193 was a game-tying solo homer in the seventh inning, his first shot since April 4, 2003, a span of 226 at-bats. "The guy is great on the ballclub," manager Jack McKeon said. "He's a motivator."
Wherever they call home next year, the Expos will have an interesting call to make when it comes to naming their rotation. There are that many valid candidates.
That might sound like daydreaming with a team that will finish this season 20-to-25 games below .500.
But the work of two pitchers vying for regular starts in the final weeks along with the hope that the rest of the staff has a little better luck in the injury department provides valid promise of better days ahead.
RHP Sunny Kim and LHP Scott Downs have proven they will be ready to fight for the ball with RHP Livan Hernandez, RHP Tomo Ohka, RHP Tony Armas Jr. and RHP Zach Day.
In back-to-back starts (September 24th and 25th) against the Phillies, Kim and Downs pitched winning baseball. The Expos won Kim's start, 8-1, but lost the next night, 4-3, in 10 innings despite a valiant effort by Downs.
Alternating between starts and relief, the just turned 27-year-old Kim (4-5) had a shutout with two out in the ninth inning when Jason Michaels doubled home Jim Thome. The latter reached on one of the two walks Kim issued while striking out eight.
The Expos are 6-3 in Kim's last nine starts. He has allowed three or fewer earned runs in seven of eight starts. Of the 15 runs he had been charged with in his previous five starts, only seven were earned.
Downs (3-6) is making the long comeback from 2001 elbow reconstruction surgery. Acquired in a trade with the Cubs on the trading deadline of July 31, 2000. He pitched three innings in his only start for the Expos on August 8 that year and was lifted with elbow discomfort.
After missing the entire 2001 season his comeback started in 2002. Before the Expos called him up this year he was 10-6, 3.52 with Triple-A Edmonton. He would later be named PCL pitcher of the year.
When he scattered five singles and one walk in 6-0 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field on September 8 it was the first shutout by an Expos left-hander since Carlos Perez beat the Red Sox, 1-0, on Sept. 3, 1997.
Both Kim and Downs will be given the opportunity to win starting jobs at whatever site the Expos stage training camp next spring.
Notes from Montreal:
- Livan Hernandez struck out a season-high nine in eight innings Sunday but the Expos lost 2-1 to the Phillies. Hernandez leads MLB with nine complete games.
- The Expos' aim to escape the NL East cellar was dealt a blow Sunday when they lost, 2-1, to the Phillies while the Mets beat the Cubs. The Expos finish the season with three at Shea Stadium (October 1-3), but they are four behind the Mets.
- 3B Tony Batista and Brad Wilkerson have given the Expos their first 30-homer teammates in the club's history.
- In the season finale at Olympic Stadium Wednesday (September 29) - probably the final game ever in Montreal - the Expos will honor their 1994 team, which had baseball's best record when a players strike led to cancellation of playoffs and World Series.
NEW YORK METS
Rhon Wright is the captain of the narcotics and vice crimes squadron of the Norfolk Police Department. Unfortunately, as he says, there's always plenty to do.
Southeastern Virginia has miles of sandy beaches, plentiful golf courses and a bustling navy base. What the tourist brochures leave out are the high rates of murder, rape and drug-related crime.
"It's not New York, but we have our problems," said Wright, a cop for 24 years.
So when Wright picks up a newspaper or logs onto his computer for news about his son, Mets rookie third baseman David Wright, it's not to see how many hits or RBIs he had. It's more to see what David had to say afterward.
"I didn't set out to raise a good baseball player," Rhon Wright said. "That was never my goal. I want all my sons to be good people then be good at what they do, whatever that may be. I check to make sure his head is on straight. I figure the baseball will take care of itself."
It has. Through 62 games with the Mets, Wright was hitting .293 with 12 home runs and 35 RBIs. The difference between the Mets and other bad teams is their 21-year-old third baseman.
The Mets don't need a run-producing team leader who is capable of multiple All-Star seasons and Gold Glove defense. They have one.
"You have to start somewhere and you can start with him," Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He's as good as everybody said he would be."
And the high expectations of Rhon and Elisa Wright have been met. While many Mets have grown comfortable with losing and are content to cash their checks and cast blame, Wright has proven immune.
"I've never lost at any level and it kills me that we're losing now," he said. "I can't just accept it.
Wright has chosen his role models well since signing with the Mets in 2001. Former major league third basemen Ken Oberkfell and Howard Johnson were his minor-league mentors.
Wright played for Oberkfell with Class A St. Lucie last season and moved with him to Double-A Binghamton this year. Johnson was the hitting coach for both teams.
"I thought he was ready for the majors in April or May," said Oberkfell, who joined the major-league staff 10 days ago. "David soaked in everything HoJo and I said to him. I've never seen a kid his age make adjustments from pitch to pitch because he's smart, mature and confident. I'd like to say I taught him that but that comes from how he was raised."
Notes from New York:
- General manager Jim Duquette has plans to meet with Mike Piazza next week to clarify his status with the team. That discussion is expected to include determining what position Piazza would play assuming he stays with the Mets. It is worth noting then that Piazza is hitting .335 (58 of 173) with 11 homers and 24 RBI as a catcher and only .225 (51 of 227) with eight homers and 23 RBI as a first baseman. "I have no explanation for that," Piazza said. "I don't think it means much but maybe there's something subconscious going on."
- David Wight was named the organization's minor-league player of the year. Double-A RHP Yusmeiro Petit was selected pitcher of the year and Class A OF Lastings Milledge rookie of the year.
- The Mets signed a two-year player development agreement with the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns of the Class A South Atlantic League. The Mets had been playing at Capital City in the same league.
- RHP Bartolome Fortunato won his first big-league game on Sept. 22 with two scoreless innings of relief. But the 30-year-old career minor leaguer didn't want the ball as a souvenir. "I'm going to pitch more games, win some and lose some," he said. "I don't care about the ball."
For each of the past several seasons, the Phillies had to rebuild their bullpen at the end of the year.
This winter figures to be no different.
Some are decisions the team will have to make. Several pitchers, however, will decide their own fate.
One of the most interesting situations involves LHP Rheal Cormier. He thought about retiring before this season, but he was coming off the best season of his career and the Phillies renewed his $3 million option. He went on to set a franchise record for appearances by a left-hander.
Now, at age 37, he could come back for another year in Philadelphia. He could test the free agent market; there are some who believe he wouldn't mind playing for the Cardinals or Padres. Or he could hang it up.
"I'm in limbo," he said. "I'm tired of traveling and I don't care about the money. But the kids don't want me to walk away and that's what makes it a tougher decision.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I've thought about retirement quite a bit. If I would keep playing, I enjoy the competition and stuff. I feel good. My arm feels good. I just don't know."
LHP Billy Wagner came to the Phillies amid high expectations, but has spent 2 1/2 months on the disabled list with a variety of agents. The Phillies hold a $9 million option for next year but, as a veteran traded in the middle of a contract, he can demand a trade and opt for free agency if he isn't accommodated.
Earlier in the season it looked as though Wagner would seriously consider leaving. But coming off a disappointing season, it's now doubtful that he's willing to risk forfeiting his guaranteed money for 2005 and will be back.
RHP Felix Rodriguez also has a player option.
RHPs Todd Jones and Roberto Hernandez can become free agents. While it doesn't appear that the Phillies have any interest in keeping Hernandez, Jones figures to be the subject of a lot of discussion when the team hold sits annual organizational meetings in Florida.
Circumstances could also dictate who's in the bullpen next season. Rookie RHP Ryan Madson was terrific pitching set-up relief most of this season, but has been a starter most of his career and could be needed to patch a hole in the rotation next season.
Notes from Philadelphia:
- Kevin Millwood may have thrown his last pitch for the Phillies on Saturday at Montreal. Making his second start since coming off the disabled list with elbow tendinitis, he suffered a strained groin that forced him to leave the game after two innings. "My arm felt great. That's a big plus. I think I've proved I'm healthy," he said.
- One rumor making the rounds has the Phillies acquiring both Kenny Lofton and Marquis Grissom and platooning them in CF next year.
- Jim Thome has missed three straight games because of shortness of breath, an apparent aftereffect of his collision with Todd Pratt in Cincinnati on September 15.
- Felix Rodriguez rejoined the team on Saturday in Montreal after missing a week to attend his grandmother's funeral in the Dominican Republic and subsequent visa problems.
- CF Doug Glanville has rejoined the team Monday at Citizens Bank Park. He had been excused to attend the funeral of his grandmother.
- The Phillies will open the 2005 season at home against the new Washington franchise, assuming the Montreal Expos are moved, according to tentative schedules in circulation.