Braves watch series, wait on next opponent

Posted: Monday, October 15, 2001

ATLANTA (AP) -- John Smoltz leaned against the dugout railing Sunday at Turner Field, fielding questions from reporters and preparing to shag fly balls during batting practice.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks had yet to play the deciding fifth game of their NL playoff series.

''I'm kind of rooting for 21 innings, and every pitcher has to pitch,'' Smoltz said with a grin.

Smoltz almost got his wish, but the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1 on Tony Womack's RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning.

The Braves, the first team to advance out of the first round when they swept the Houston Astros, will open the NLCS on Tuesday in Arizona.

The Braves, knocked out in the first round last year, are back in the NLCS for the ninth time in 10 seasons.

''Compared to last year, it already feels like a much longer year,'' Smoltz said. ''We made it past the first stage, with an opportunity to still play our best baseball.''

Although Smoltz has been a major part of the Braves' success in the past decade, he's no longer the dominant starter who compiled a 12-4 record in eight postseasons. He's now the closer and finished all three games against the Astros.

''I can honestly say I've enjoyed that part of it,'' Smoltz said. ''But the series only goes as our offense and starting pitching goes, and of course I try to my part if given the opportunity.

''In this role, you want to pitch ahead, you don't want to pitch behind.''

Atlanta's starting catcher for the next round is still up in the air. Paul Bako played all 27 innings behind the plate against Houston, with normal starter Javy Lopez out with a sprained ankle. Lopez's status for the rest of the playoffs is questionable, and Bako missed Sunday's workout to be with his wife, Lauri, who's about to give birth to the couple's second child.

Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz said he had not heard from Bako and didn't know what his status would be for Tuesday's NLCS opener.

Lopez caught 20 minutes in the bullpen Sunday and took batting practice, but said he's not sure when he'd be back.

''The injury I have, they say it takes a month for it to heal,'' said Lopez, who hurt his ankle Sept. 30. ''So I've only had two weeks, and already I'm doing more than they think I should do.

''I can hit with no problem, and I can catch. But I have trouble blocking pitches and getting up to throw. I just hope the Braves go with three catchers on the roster, so if I do play, we'll have Bako or Eddie (Perez) just in case something happens.''

Braves manager Bobby Cox said starting pitcher Kevin Millwood would be on the roster announced Tuesday, but Cox said no decision had been on the rotation. Millwood missed the Astros series when Atlanta went with three starters.

Having three days between games allows the Braves to have Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Burkett ready to start the first three games of the next series, but the extra rest may not have been good for the offense.

''We've never played real good after one day off, much less three days off,'' Chipper Jones said. ''But it's playoff time, and hopefully everybody will bring their 'A' game when we do get to play again.''

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