Braves have returned to earth, yet hold first place; consider pitching key area of concern

The owner of Conte's Restaurant in New York City thinks the Atlanta Braves can win the National League West this season. That would be Joe Torre, who is also the Braves' manager and the only man I know who can get 5 o'clock shadow at 3:45 in the afternoon.

''If it were simply a case of hitting and defense, I don't think anyone in our division could touch us,'' Torre told me as we stood behind the batting cage at Dodger Stadium. ''We're aggressive; we score a lot of runs; and we can hurt you with our power. We've got three guys in the middle of our lineup (he meant Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, and Chris Chambliss) who can hit the ball out against anybody.

''What we aren't completely sure of is our pitching,'' Joe continued. ''It was great early, when we didn't have anybody injured. But any time a pitcher is out for a while, it's not like he's ready the minute you get him back -- and all but one of our starters has already missed some time for one reason or another. So far we've been able to get by because of our bullpen, which is one of the best in the league.''

Asked why the Braves, after opening the 1982 season with a major league record-breaking 13-game winning streak, haven't played much better than .500 baseball since, Torre replied:

''If you throw out the five consecutive losses we had right after the streak, then we don't look so bad, and that's the way I prefer to see it. Nobody else in our division has been any better, and if they don't improve, then maybe we won't have to improve either.

''The thing I probably like best about this club is that it doesn't rely on any one or two guys to carry it in every game,'' he added. ''Teams with that kind of balance aren't apt to have many slumps. For example, if you can come back with a couple of wins after every loss, then you're pennant material. And most of the time we've been able to do that.''

In what might be a major league first, the Braves are carrying two pitching coaches, the veteran Rube Walker and Hall of Famer Bob Gibson. Walker, if you remember, got most of the credit for developing the bulk of the 1969 Miracle Mets pitching staff of Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Jerry Kossman, Gary Gentry, Tug McGraw, and Jim McAndrew.

Gibson, who won 251 games in 17 years with the St. Louis Cardinals, practically beat the Boston Red Sox singlehandedly in the 1967 World Series. Bob's 3,117 career strikeouts ranks him first among National League pitchers and third on baseball's all-time list behind Walter Johnson and Gaylord Perry.

''The reason Walker and Gibson work so well together is because they are both specialists in different areas,'' Torre explained. ''Rube is basically a teacher who is an expert on the mechanics of pitching. If one of our kids unconsciously changes something that creates a flaw in his delivery, Walker will spot it in a minute. And he's good with everybody because he's got a lot of patience.

''The fact that Gibson was still pitching for the Cardinals as recently as 1975 and went into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot gives his words a lot of credibility,'' Joe continued. ''He's the guy I send out to the mound when there are runners on base, the opposition's best hitter is coming up, and the pitcher isn't sure just what options he has. Well, Bob is awfully good at telling a kid or a veteran what to do in a situation like that without getting an argument.''

In fact, some of Gibson's chief theories on pitching are worth repeating here.

''With the starters we've got and the deep bullpen we've got, we're not necessarily looking for complete games,'' Bob said. ''We just want to make sure that our pitchers are going all out, all the way, all the time and not pacing themselves.

''Any time we get seven strong innings out of one of our starters that results in a lead, I figure our bullpen can protect that lead the rest of the way,'' he added. ''I think a team needs at least three good relief pitchers to win today and actually, with Rick Camp, Al Hrabosky, Gene Garber, and Steve Bedrosian, we've got four.''

Slightly overlooked but not unappreciated by Torre in the Braves' rush to the top of the National League West is shortstop Rafael Ramirez, who made 30 errors last season in 95 games while hitting just .218.

Concerned that Ramirez might have a repeat performance this year, Atlanta spent at least part of the winter trying to pry shortstop Larry Bowa (who eventually landed in Chicago) away from Philadelphia.

But the way things have turned out so far, the Braves needn't have worried about Rafael, who has settled down in the field and shown considerable improvement at the plate.

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