Baseball: Atlanta's pitching can prevail in the year of big hitters

It's October, which in America means the baseball play-offs, and the annual question of the 1990s: who can stop Ted Turner's Atlanta Braves winning the World Series? Rupert Cornwell weighs up the form, and also considers how the sport's most famous record improbably survived another year.

This time the pursuers came close. But for all the new and hitter-friendly ball parks, sluggers who are bigger and stronger than ever before, allegedly juiced balls and a league-wide shortage of quality pitching, baseball's blue riband remains in the hands of Roger Maris for yet another year.

On Sunday, in the last game of the regular season, Mark McGwire of the St Louis Cardinals clubbed his 58th homer; a day earlier Ken Griffey Junior had swatted his 56th for the Seattle Mariners. Both marks were the best in 36 years, but still short of the 61 Maris struck in 1961 when he and Mickey Mantle, who hit 54 that year, gave the New York Yankees the most lethal one-two punch in the history of the sport.

But if Griffey failed in his individual quest, the Mariners collectively ran up 264 homers, beating by seven the team record established only last year by the Baltimore Orioles. In the process they captured their second American League West division title in three years and set themselves up as dark horses to go all the way.

In the AL Central, the Cleveland Indians prevailed for the third straight year, while in the East the Orioles and the Yankees again dominated - except that, for the first time since their world championship year of 1983, it was Baltimore who came out on top. The Orioles, moreover, led on every day of the season, a feat accomplished only six times in baseball history. On each occasion bar one, that team went on to win the World Series.

The Yankees, however, will consider themselves fortunate to have come second. The wild card place brings them up against Cleveland, no pushover but a less daunting proposition than Seattle, where Baltimore open October hostilities tonight. Can the Orioles' hitters handle Randy Johnson, he of the 100mph fastball and the most intimidating starting pitcher in the majors? And will Seattle's sluggers be defanged by Baltimore's bullpen, by common consent the best in the business? The sub-plots are fascinating. Regular-season form favours the O's, but the smart money likes Seattle.

However, as in 1991, 1992, 1995 and 1996, it will be a huge surprise if Atlanta fail to win the National League pennant. The Braves were the only team to win 100 games in the regular season, for which they have been rewarded by a first-round match-up with the Houston Astros, an earth- bound bunch indeed, but the least-bad team in a dire NL Central.

As usual Atlanta's trump card is its pitching, and a post-season starting rotation of three former Cy Young winners, augmented by rookie Denny Neagle whose regular season of 20 wins and just four losses may earn him the 1997 prize. The Braves' toughest challenge may come from the wild- card Florida Marlins, who should edge the San Francisco Giants in the first round. Alas, the second round of play-offs, for the league championship pennant, is best of seven. Five-game series can be dodgy, but over seven Atlanta's class should be decisive.

And so to the Series. Last year the Yankees used up a decade's quota of miracles by first defeating Baltimore, thanks in part to the less than divine intervention of Jeff Maier. He, it will be remembered, was the 12-year-old fan who leant out over the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium to catch an innocuous fly ball. Wrongly, the umpire called it a home run, a mistake which would turn the game and the AL Championship Series. Then they reversed a 0-2 deficit to amaze everyone - including themselves - and defeat the Braves 4-2 in the World Series.

Will it be deja vu all over again in 1997? Maybe. The Yankees are the team in form, having won their last eight regular-season games. But something says Seattle. In the World Series though, good pitching almost always beats good hitting. Atlanta, incontrovertibly, are baseball's team of the decade, and the real surprise is that they've only one world championship to show for it. Come the end of the month, it ought to be two.

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