Team balance, pitching carry Braves closer to playoffs

A couple of writers were telling manager Joe Torre that the Atlanta Braves, 20-plus games over the .500 mark and climbing, were in as champions of the National League West. About all Atlanta needed, they were saying, was to split the remainder of their games and there wouldn't be enough schedule left for the Dodgers or the Astros or anyone else to catch them.

This was also before the Braves lost all-star third baseman Bob Horner for the season with a broken wrist, although Horner may be available in time for the playoffs.

''Of course I like where we are, but I'm not taking anything for granted,'' Torre admitted. ''There are too many variables in baseball for that. Plenty of clubs have come into September with big leads and stumbled when they got cold and somebody else got hot.

''I've had newspapermen ask me about the playoffs like we were already there, '' Torre continued. ''But I tell them all the same thing: Talk to me about the playoffs after we've won our division. In fact, I don't want anyone on this ball club looking ahead until we're mathematically safe.''

Asked if Torre's feelings had anything to do with what happened last year, when Atlanta lost 19 of 21 games in late July and August, dropping three games behind Los Angeles with only 10 days left in the season, Joe replied:

''To tell you the truth, what happened in 1982 has nothing to do with me feeling that we should lock things up first before we start celebrating this season. Last year we were a young ball club that suddenly learned how to win. We managed to build up a big lead over everybody in our division and for a while we were comfortable with it.

''What most people don't understand is that you also have to learn how to lose as a team to be a success in this game. You can play well, you know, and still not win. When that happens over a stretch of games, you have to be so confident of your ability as a team that you don't panic.

''Well, after we had our slump last year and the Dodgers passed us, we came back and won 13 of our next 15 games. That's why I don't worry about this club, because when it did falter, it showed it could come back. Now I'm not expecting another slump in what remains of the season, but if one should come, I'm convinced we could deal with it.''

Possibly because the Braves finished only one game ahead of the Dodgers last year (in a race that was decided on the final day of the season) and then got swept by the St. Louis Cardinals in the playoffs, most pre-season polls treated their chances of repeating lightly. Much of the media, in fact, picked not only the Dodgers but also the San Francisco Giants to finish ahead of Atlanta.

''Even though the Cardinals beat us three straight in the playoffs, we were never that bad a ball club,'' Torre explained. ''With some breaks, we probably could have won a couple of those games ourselves. Anyway, I've never felt that a best three-of-five playoff series was fair to either team. Four-of-seven I'll buy, and I understand, if the Players' Association votes its approval, that format will be adopted in 1984. What I like to remember about 1982 is that we finished first over a 162-game schedule in a division where the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres all had good years.''

Questioned as to how much better the 1983 Braves are than last year's division champions, Torre said:

''My feeling is that we've improved as a team somewhere between 30 and 50 percent. On second thought, maybe 50 percent is putting it a little high. But when we sat down during the winter and evaluated last year, we felt the thing we needed most were a couple of left-handed pitchers, particularly people who could help us right away in the bullpen.

''Like a lot of clubs, we bid for Floyd Bannister, a free-agent starter who was coming off a fine year with the Seattle Mariners. But our first priority was actually Terry Forster of the Dodgers, another free agent, whom we eventually signed and who we were sure would give us the kind of quality left-hander we needed in our bullpen.

''Although we lost out on Bannister (who signed with the White Sox), we did get another proven left-hander from the Mets in Pete Falcone, who can both start and relieve. And while we expected newcomer Craig McMurtry to do well as a starter, we really didn't entertain any thoughts that McMurtry might become National League Rookie of the Year.''

Unlike most rival managers, Torre didn't seem to mind talking about how he felt when the Dodgers allowed first baseman Steve Garvey to sign with the Padres as a free agent and later traded third baseman Ron Cey to the Cubs.

''Frankly I was relieved,'' Joe said. ''All I could think of at the time was that the Dodgers were giving up an awful lot of experience and runs-batted-in. I also thought this would put extra pressure on whoever replaced Garvey at first base, and that outfielder Pedro Guerrero might not find learning a new infield position that easy. But I still have great respect for the Dodgers and their kids. Whenever we play, they always seem to give us a maximum of trouble.''

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