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Baker: Ortiz can only get better
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09/29/2003  8:05 PM ET 
Baker: Ortiz can only get better
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"If we continue to do what we've done all year, I've got to feel pretty good about our chances," Russ Ortiz said. (Erik S. Lesser/AP)
ATLANTA -- Life isn't quite the same as it was a year ago for Russ Ortiz and Dusty Baker. But then again, some things are beginning to once again feel familiar for these two former Giants, whose statures continue to grow in the baseball world.

When last year's National League Division Series began at Turner Field, Baker, then the Giants manager handed the ball to Ortiz and the right-hander responded by recording the first of his two postseason victories over the Braves.

When this year's National League Division Series begins at Turner Field on Tuesday night, Baker will assume his current role as the Cubs manager and for the first time, will be looking at the mound and seeing Ortiz wearing the enemy's colors.

Ortiz, who played under Baker from the time he made his Major League debut with the Giants in 1998, until last December's trade to Atlanta, will be facing the Cubs for the first time this year when he accepts the well-deserved honor of beginning the Braves' postseason push.

"I've thought about it and for them to want me to pitch Game 1 is special," Ortiz said. "I think it brings a lot more confidence to me, knowing that they want me on the mound in Game 1. Now, I'm just excited to get going."

In terms of trades, Ortiz couldn't have asked for a better one. He once again has been granted the opportunity to play for a winner and under the guidance of Braves manager Bobby Cox, who like Baker, is adored by his players.

Probable starting lineups: Game 1
CubsKenny Lofton, CFMark Grudzielanek, 2BSammy Sosa, RFMoises Alou, LFAramis Ramirez, 3BEric Karros, 1BAlex Gonzalez, SSPaul Bako, CKerry Wood, P
BravesRafael Furcal, SSMarcus Giles, 2BGary Sheffield, RFChipper Jones, LFAndruw Jones, CFJavy Lopez, CRobert Fick, 1BVinny Castilla, 3BRuss Ortiz, P
"Their personalities are obviously a little different," Ortiz said. "But overall, I think they get the best out of their players."

Cox certainly saw Ortiz near his best this year. The right-hander's career-high 21 wins paced the National League and left him just one victory shy of matching Roy Halladay's Major League-best total.

"I don't think there were any surprises with what Russ did, if you check his past," Cox said in reference to the fact Ortiz had won at least 14 games and logged 195 innings in his first four full Major League seasons that preceded the trade.

This year, Cox has learned just why Baker holds Ortiz in such high esteem.

"He's one of the finest guys I've ever had play on my team," Baker said. "He's a gentleman. He's a Christian young man. He lives as he talks. My respect for Russ is very high. I love having Russ on the team.

"I told him years ago he had a chance to throw a no-hitter, win 20 and be a Cy Young Award winner. This year he's knocking on two of the things I told him. He's still young and he's a horse. Russ can only get better."

Ortiz, who ended the regular season with 14 scoreless innings, believes the experience he gained from helping the Giants get to the World Series last year is a big reason why he was able to find so much success this year.

"It helped, because I knew everything that I could handle," Ortiz said. "Now coming into the postseason, it just feels like a normal game I guess. I don't feel like I have to prepare any harder or make sure I pitch better than I did in the regular season. I realize things I need to do. This is the second step toward winning a world championship. The first step was winning a division championship and we passed that test."

Now the final examinations begin and Ortiz realizes that his performance will be a major factor in whether he and the Braves will realize their ultimate dream at the end of this month.

"I know we're very good and if we continue to do what we've done all year, I've got to feel pretty good about our chances," Ortiz said. "It's the same thing with me. If I can pitch how I know I can pitch and how I finished up the last two games, I feel good about giving us a quality start and winning the ballgame."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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