Atlanta pulling off miracle season | NevadaAppeal.com

Atlanta pulling off miracle season

Jeremy Littau

The best laid plans always come to ruin thanks to the flippin’ Mets.

I’d planned to take up a little space this morning tossing out some postseason baseball thoughts, but New York can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be eliminated from the playoff race or not.

On this, the final day of the 1999 Major League Baseball season, we still don’t know who’s winning the NL Central or the NL wild card. The American League got its act together early and sewed up the four postseason spots, but the National League decided to be difficult once again.

Fortunately, the NL race is much easier to handicap, since its two best teams – Atlanta and Arizona – have already earned spots in the postseason.

If the Mets earn the wild card, that means I correctly picked six of the eight postseason teams back in April. That’s not bad, considering I selected two sorry Los Angeles teams – the Dodgers and Angels – to win their respective divisions.

One thing I’d like to see is for Atlanta to get its due in the postseason awards. Save the Cy Young Award, the Braves generally don’t pick up a lot of hardware when the votes are tallied. Bobby Cox gets slighted for the manager award because his teams win too consistently, and Atlanta really hasn’t had a real MVP-type player in the batting order during the 90s.

This year is different, of course.

Atlanta leads the majors in victories, which is stunning when you consider the hills it has had to climb this season:

— Andres Galarraga, the best power threat in the lineup, was declared out for the year in March when he was diagnosed with cancer.

— Closer Kerry Ligtenberg hasn’t played since April, leaving the Braves with a young and unproven closer in John Rocker.

— Kevin Millwood has been the lone bright star on the starting staff. Tom Glavine is having an off year, and only a second-half surge has brought Greg Maddux near the 20-win plateau despite an uncharacteristically high ERA. John Smoltz has been on and off the disabled list all season, and a clear fifth starter has never emerged.

— Javy Lopez, who was having an All-Star year at catcher, ruptured his Achilles tendon and is out for the season.

So what has propelled Atlanta this season?

First, third baseman Chipper Jones is having an MVP year (ahem, I called this back in April). Voters love RBIs though, and that hurts Jones’ chances of actually winning the award, but no player has carried his team like Chipper.

I believe in awarding the MVP to the player that impacts their team the most, and Jones is that man. Jeff Bagwell is putting up the pretty numbers for Houston, as is our own Matt Williams in Arizona, but nobody has been more valuable to their team than Jones.

Second, the Atlanta bullpen has been steady all season. For all the criticism the Braves have endured in recent years about a “shaky bullpen,” the team has actually built a dependable unit of journeyman and young players.

Atlanta also has the intangibles this season. It leads the majors in comeback victories, and it also has the best record in the league against playoff teams. The Braves have done both only one other time in the 1990s despite their impressive run – the year was 1996, and they topped Cleveland in the World Series in six games.

The Braves won’t win pretty this season, but they’re the kind of scrappy club that a lot of fans would appreciate, Tomahawk Chop aside. Only a group frontal lobotomy ought to prevent Bobby Cox from winning Manager of the Year.

Back in April, I predicted an Atlanta-Cleveland series. I’ll stick by that pick, but one darkhorse I like to come out of the AL is Texas.

The Rangers aren’t the sexiest pick out there (yes, the New York Yankees bandwagon is one high-octane beast), but they are playing the best baseball in the league right now.

Jeremy Littau is the Nevada Appeal sports editor.