Sports

These Braves Well-Armed For Success

They don’t bend. They don’t break. They don’t fracture. They don’t tear.

They wouldn’t know a surgeon from a sturgeon. They’re a lot more familiar with a grocery list than with the disabled list.

They’re the Atlanta Braves’ indestructible starting pitchers. And they’re the main reason the Braves lead the 1995 World Series 2-0 heading into Game 3 tonight.

And those Braves starters are also the main reason this team has shown up for every baseball postseason since 1991. And there is more to that than the mere fact they’re so good they can make Albert Belle swing the bat like Juan Bell.

What is even more significant is that, unlike most other starting rotations, these Braves starters never, ever break down.

Many teams, for example, have few, if any, pitchers working on a streak of more than one season in which he has made 20 starts or more. Greg Maddux, on the other hand, has made 20 starts or more nine years in a row, the last three in Atlanta. Tom Glavine has done it eight years in a row. John Smoltz has done it seven years in a row. Steve Avery has done it six years in a row.

Over the last four years, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Avery have missed a measly four starts combined - only one of them because of arm trouble.

This quartet has thrown 6,483-2/3 big-league innings without visiting the disabled list at any point in their careers.

Get the picture? Now you would think that at least some of the Braves’ amazing run of durability is due to luck. But when general manager John Schuerholz was asked how much of it is luck, his pithy reply was:

“None of it. And I’m being serious when I say that. I don’t think luck has anything to do with it.”

What does have something to do with it, Schuerholz is convinced, is the unique arm-maintenance program of pitching coach Leo Mazzone.

Now could that program work as well for any staff as it does for this collection of Cy Young winners and wannabes?

“Sure,” Mazzone said. “I think you could do it with any pitchers on any staff - because it’s just common sense.”

In Mazzone’s mind, it’s just common sense that “your No. 1 goal as a pitching coach should be that your starting pitcher takes his turn when it’s his time to go to the post.”

And in Mazzone’s mind, it’s common sense that “pitchers don’t throw enough.”

So in Atlanta, more than anywhere else, pitchers throw. And throw and throw and throw. You see them lined up in the bullpen before games, like guys waiting for a bus.

Relievers have the option to throw in the bullpen every day. Many of them do. But the biggest difference between the way the Braves do things and the way most teams do things is that the Braves’ starters throw twice between starts. On most teams they throw just once.

The Braves throw for feel. And they throw for touch. And that, Mazzone said, is because “pitching is feel and touch.”

The Braves also throw “to exercise their arms.” But they throw “without maximum exertion” - because “injuries,” Mazzone said, “occur from overexertion and overextension.”

So while the Braves don’t throw hard between starts, they never stop throwing. And the results don’t just speak for themselves. They practically recite the Gettysburg Address.

“I’ll put it this way,” Mazzone said. “Say you’re going to run 10 miles in a week. If you run 10 miles in one day or spread the 10 miles out over seven days, which way are you going to feel better? The answer’s obvious. So we spread it out.”

Now not everybody’s program is precisely the same.

Glavine is at one extreme. He throws every single day. In his four days between starts, he throws in the bullpen two days and plays catch in the outfield the other two.

Maddux is at the other extreme. Because he started out with the Chicago Cubs, doing things the way most teams do, he is given the option to throw just once between starts if he prefers. Sometimes he throws twice. Most cycles, he throws once.

“I’d have to be a fool to tell Maddux he had to throw two times in between,” Mazzone said. “But there are times he wants to. He’ll say, ‘C’mon. Let’s throw.”’

Mazzone learned his routine from Johnny Sain, a former Braves pitching coach and a free thinker whose theories weren’t always trusted, even by his managers.

“I remember, 10 years ago or so, Johnny Sain and I were in the Instructional League,” Mazzone said. “And there was a young pitcher there named Tom Glavine. He had some tenderness in his elbow, and they were going to send him home.

“Johnny Sain asked if he could work with Glavine before they sent him home. He threw five days in a row. He didn’t throw hard. But he threw five days in a row. Then he took two days off, came back, and threw a bunch of shutout innings. And he was better after doing it.”

The closest The Rotation has come to a serious injury came last year, right before the strike, when Smoltz missed a start with bone chips in his elbow that eventually had to be removed.

But even Smoltz says: “I’m a firm believer in the program. I’ve been doing it for eight years. I had bone chips. But that’s something I’m told is just in your body makeup. Every pitcher has it at some point. It’s not a matter of having bad mechanics or good mechanics.”

“Hey, chips are one thing,” Mazzone said. “But torn rotator cuffs and blown-out shoulders are another thing. And we’ve never had that.”

And that has taken some luck, Mazzone concedes - whether his general manager thinks so or not.

“You need those good genes in the pitchers, too,” Mazzone said. “They’ve got to have the mechanics to be able to do it.”

While you can’t control the genes, though, you can control everything else. So you would think that, by now, 27 other teams all would be trying to do things the Braves’ way. But when Mazzone was asked how many were, he just laughed.

“I don’t know,” said Leo Mazzone, pitching genius. “And I don’t really care.”



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