1996 NEWS

1996 News > Fab Four

HELPING THEMSELVES: FAB FOUR KNOW VALUE OF SWINGING THE BAT

By Carroll Rogers, Tomahawk

The proud holder of the 1981 Billerica (Mass) Memorial High batting title as only a freshman--not to mention future owner of the World Series MVP trophy--Tom Glavine once approached the plate as an Atlanta Brave with his bat on his shoulder, his eyes on the third base coach and his mind on what the pitcher might have been thinking.

So he didn't see the opposing catcher laughing. He only heard him say, "Man, you've got something on your bat.

Tom Glavine had left the weighted donut on his bat.

Baseball blooper film material? Absolutely. But catching pitchers, who wear their jackets on the basepaths and running shoes in the batting cage, in an embarrassing moment or two is no exclusive. After all, pitchers aren't supposed to feel at home at the plate. That's why they often look invitingly human to fans when they're batting in the big leagues, getting a taste of their own nasty medicine.

But the Braves' top four pitchers, who can approach invincible on the mound, manage to look relatively suave in the box And so do their statistics.

Glavine, Steve Avery, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz had a combined .206 batting average heading into June 15, which is second among National League teams' top four starting pitchers behind Houston. The Braves' bunch is leading the National League with 15 RBls and 27 hits and is tied for second with Montreal in sacrifices with 19.

"I don't think any of us think we're great hitters or anything like that, but at the same time, we don't feel like we're just going to go up there, take three pitches and that's the end of that," said Glavine, winner of two Silver Slugger awards [1995, 1991] given to the best hitter in the league at each position.

He leads the Braves' staff with a .286 batting average.

"I think every one of us can count a game a season, and I don't know how many games over our careers where just laying down a bunt or a base hit may have won a game," Glavine said.

Those skills don't necessarily come naturally for the Braves' hurlers. Manager Bobby Cox makes sure they are honed.

We push it," Cox said.

Each Braves starter works in the indoor batting cages with coaches Jimy Williams and Jim Beauchamp at least once between starts. And the pitchers hit every day at the start of batting practice.

"I played in Chicago for six years, and I got my first batting lesson when I came to Atlanta," said Maddux.

Avery on pitching to Maddux: "I'd probably just throw him fastballs and let him get himself out."

The figure of Maddux is not exactly imposing as he stands bat in hand, with a plug of dip tucked in his upper lip and his glasses resting on his nose. When he fouls a pitch off the top of the batting cage it sounds nowhere near as thunderous as one hit by Ryan Kiesko would. But Maddux has some big memories of his own.

"Going deep on Waveland Avenue," said Maddux, who as a 26-year-old Cub, four Cy Youngs ago, got to enjoy gusty wind blowing out at Wrigley Field for a change. "Bouncing it halfway up the apartment building across the street."

The Braves starters used to have a season-long running dinner bet, keeping tabs on bunts, hits, home runs and RBIs. Now the bets are made on a smaller scale. They're less involved, and more personal.

"Somebody says something, so you take them up on it," said Smoltz, who is now one-up on Glavine in their golf match play-like bet that extends over 18 games. The prize is yet to be decided.

Take away hitting in 100-degree afternoon games and being pulled for pinch-hitters, the Braves starters said they like putting their spikes on the other foot. Especially when it comes to the long ball - pitcher's nightmare, hitting pitcher's dream.

Glavine on pitching to Smoltz: "I'd throw him one fastball away then throw him fastballs in. He doesn't like the ball in."

Smoltz hit the first home run of his career in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on May 3, 1989, his rookie season, the same day he threw his first major league complete game. He celebrated by going 0 for his next 19.

"Hitting the home run makes you feel like you're not just some weak-hitting pitcher," said Smoltz, who leads the staff with three career homers. "'To hit a home run was truly great."

National league pitchers don't bat in the minor leagues until they reach the higher levels--Double-A and Triple-A--and then, they only bat in games against other National League teams. For a Triple-A Richmond pitcher, that may mean weeks go by between turns in the batting cages.

For the Braves fifth starter, rookie Jason Schmidt, who's back in Atlanta after a month in Richmond, breaking into the rotation means more than just trying to pitch well. It means brushing up on his hitting skills.

"I was a good hitter in high school," said Schmidt, who hit .400 in the heart of the order at Kelso (Wash.) High. "But it's been like four years since I've hit, and I feel like an idiot. It's like I've never done it before."

Pitching peer pressure is at its worst around the batting cage during daily simulated games between the starters and the relievers.

Brad clontz drilled a liner down the left field line. Fair or foul? Pat Corrales, first base coach and simulated game pitcher, ruled it foul. Heated discussion followed.

But when Terrell Wade hit a fly ball high and deep, the talking subsided while all eyes followed his ball, which landed disappointingly shy of the outfield wall.

Trash-talking resumed and continued until the game ended and the starters, 8-5 losers, had to help pick up baseballs littering the infield.

Avery was pitching that night and didn't play in the simulated game. But as he approached the cage for his own personal batting turn, Corrales said "They can't win without you."

Smoltz on Avery: "With Ave, you mix it up and-hope you don't make that mistake where he makes that power swing."

All the Braves starters recognize that swing. They first saw it in full effect three years ago in Candlestick Park when Avery's first big league home run experience turned into a plea for instant replay in baseball.

A chain link outfield fence disguised his home run as a double, because umpires thought it bounced in front of the fence. Avery said the play was hard to see, but the ruling was also plenty hard to take when he saw TV replays showing the ball had cleared the fence.

But last year, Avery, who hit .511 his senior year at John F. Kennedy High School in Taylor, Mich., made up for it twice, with home runs against Mike Morgan and Mark Portugal.

"I would have really been bummed if I had gone my whole career without getting one, and that was the reason I didn't get one," Avery said.

Glavine hit his first and only career home run last August off John Smiley, helping himself and the Braves to a 2-1 win. Eleven days later he recorded his 1,000th strikeout.

And that came against a pitcher, Houston's Doug Drabek.

"Nine out of 10 pitchers, you're saying 'This guy's an out,"' said Glavine. "There are some guys in the league who have the reputation of swinging the bat decent, and you can't maybe be as careless with them as you are with most pitchers."

Smoltz on Glavine: "You got to pitch him like a hitter, just don't tell him I said that."

Glavine is a good hitting pitcher, but there are certain moments he feels like an easy out. And they come when he faces Cleveland's Dennis Martinez.

In the World Series, Glavine was 0-for-3 in four plate appearances against Martinez. In Game 2, he struck out looking in the second inning and walked in the fourth inning, fighting back from an 0-2 count. In two at-bats in Game 6, Glavine grounded out and struck out looking again.

"A lot of guys you can pick up their breaking ball because it starts on a different plane, or they throw it from a different spot, but with Dennis everything was the same," Glavine said. "The first 10, 15 feet out of his hand it looks like a fastball. All of a sudden it goes 'whoom' and I'm thinking 'I got no chance at hitting this ball.'"

But the Braves didn't need Glavine's bat to win their championship. They needed his arm.

And despite the aforementioned accolades, Braves starters are pitchers first. Make no mistake.

"There are times in the on-deck circle when I'm thinking about who's coming up next inning or who I faced last inning," said Maddux. "You don't really start thinking about your hitting until the pitcher starts his windup."

Maddux rarely divulges his pitching secrets, and the trend continued, even when he was asked for hypothetical scouting reports on his fellow pitchers.

"I wouldn't walk them and I wouldn't give them anything good to hit, " Maddux said.

But upon further review, Maddux said: "I might just drill Glavine or Avery. I'm not sure which one. I might throw at both of them, just for fun, because they bug me sometimes. And I'd knock the bat right out of Smoltz's hand, pitch him like a little 4-year-old."