World Series 2001 |
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World Series 2001
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10/13/2001 03:14 AM ET
Bauman: Same 'ol Braves
Chipper and the Braves celebrate their three-game sweep of the Astros.
ATLANTA -- This was the best of the Atlanta Braves, not necessarily from this season, but from all the collected memories of the past decade.

For all of the Braves' struggles this season, for all of the reports of their demise, here they were in a Division Series with all their usual elements in place and functioning like clockwork.

The starting pitching was never worse than good, and once -- Tom Glavine in Game 2 -- it was impeccable. The hitting was timely, the defense solid and there was nothing a talented Houston Astros team could do about it. One, two, three, sweep.

It looked simply like the Braves at the top of their game. It looked routine. If you didn't think of the Braves' iffy regular season, you would've thought of it as just the way of things, completely normal.

Afterward, in the winners' clubhouse, it was completely normal. It was so normal that it was abnormal. Subdued? This didn't look and sound like the clubhouse of a team that had just won a playoff series. This looked and sounded like the clubhouse of a team that had just split a four-game series in May with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

There was plastic spread in front of the lockers to protect the contents from the sprayed champagne. But there wasn't any champagne being sprayed, just as there wasn't any loud music, shouts of triumph, or any of the usual signs of rampant celebration. These guys were in full been there, done that mode.

"I don't think we sustained good baseball all year until the last three weeks. We certainly feel like we could have played better, should have played better during the course of the season, made a lot of things easier on us."

--Braves third baseman Chipper Jones

Friday's winning pitcher John Burkett, a relative newcomer, surveyed the scene and laughed: "I want to go nuts in here," he said. "I think it's another situation where guys on the Braves expect to be there. It's something that I'm really enjoying, because I've never been in the NLCS. Every team I've been on, we've battled, but we ended up losing. This is a nice feeling."

The Braves expected to reach the League Championship Series. And why shouldn't they? After the start of the expanded playoff format in 1995, they reached the NLCS five straight times. Last season was the only time they were eliminated in a Division Series.

"It's easy to get caught up in the moment, but we realize this is a small step," said starter-turned-closer John Smoltz. "To be honest, we struggled, and then down the stretch we won a big series that we had to win (against Philadelphia) and some big games to get into the playoffs. And that's why the team was so happy to get into the playoffs. Now it's steps, you know? You climb one step and try to make another.

"People are excited about what's going on now and I try not to get caught up in that. It's easy now, because things are going good."

What the Braves were enjoying, in lieu of a clubhouse bash, was their newfound status as playoff underdogs. That, and the fact that they have played their best baseball at the right time -- in the final days of the regular season and here in the Division Series.

"This underdog thing is kind of neat," Chipper Jones said. "We're used to winning 100-plus games and running away with the Eastern Division. Now we come in here to the playoffs and even our own announcers I heard, ranking the eight teams in the playoffs, I don't think any of them ranked us higher than seventh. So we proved a lot of people wrong. And we did that with pitching, great starting pitching, some good defense and some timely hitting. That's been our formula for a long time."

When it was suggested to Jones that these three games looked like a capsule of the Braves at their best, he responded dryly:

"Yeah. It's just unfortunate that it took us six months to get here.

"I don't think we sustained good baseball all year until the last three weeks," Jones said. "We certainly feel like we could have played better, should have played better during the course of the season, made a lot of things easier on us.

"But there's just something about the end of the season, being in the pennant race, playing in the playoffs, a lot of guys in here have turned it up a notch, when they probably should have turned it up a notch in April or May. But they finally did. And this team seems to be doing the right things at the right time.

"And that's what's so great about this day right here. Nobody gave us a chance to be standing here. And in all honesty, there were probably some naysayers in this clubhouse. But the last 10 days, two weeks of the season, we played extremely good baseball. And the last three games we played about as good as we can play."

That is exactly what they did. They spent most of the regular season playing like somebody else, somebody less. But when the playoffs started, they acted like they were the virtual owners of the first round. They acted, in other words, like the Atlanta Braves have acted six times in the last seven years.

Three games ago, you would have said that a Braves sweep would have been an utter shock. But watching the Atlanta club play these three games, the outcomes seemed neither surprising nor fluky. These were the Braves being the Braves at their best. If they play like this, they aren't supposed to lose.

Mike Bauman is a columnist for based in Milwaukee.