NL Championship Series Starts Today

Tuesday, October 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

(PHOENIX) - Randy Johnson (21-6) faces Greg Maddux (17-11) today as the Arizona Diamondbacks meet the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.

The American League Championship Series between the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees starts tomorrow.

When Randy Johnson lost for Seattle against Cleveland in the 1995 AL championship series, he had no idea it would be the first of seven consecutive playoff defeats that would stretch into the next century.

The Big Unit has won three Cy Young Awards and accumulated 3,412 strikeouts, yet he has not succeeded when it mattered most. At age 38, he could begin to bury that legacy with a victory Tuesday against Greg Maddux and the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the NL championship series.

``Some guys get the tag as a great big-game pitcher, and other guys don't get that tag,'' Arizona manager Bob Brenly said. ``But I like my chances with him out there on the mound, I know that.''

Nobody in baseball faces the kind of expectations and scrutiny that Johnson does. At 6-foot-10, he can hardly disappear in a crowd. When he goes to the mound, it's a disappointment if he doesn't reach double-digit strikeouts.

``It's something that I guess is a nice situation to be in, if you think about it,'' Johnson said. ``I mean, it's nice that people would count on you or expect something from you when you go out there, as opposed to, `What are we going to get from him today.'''

Yet that's exactly what Diamondbacks fans are wondering after Johnson allowed three runs on six hits in eight innings - good but not good enough - in Arizona's 4-1 loss to Woody Williams and St. Louis in Game 2 of their division series.

The seven straight losses are a major league record, and Johnson's reputation as a postseason bust persists no matter how well he pitches in defeat.

``If people really do their homework and look at the numbers, he's certainly pitched well enough to win the overwhelming majority of those ballgames,'' Brenly said. ``This is a team game. It involves offense, defense, pitching. No matter how well you pitch, if your teammates don't score runs for you, you get hung with the loss and answering all the questions.''

Johnson and Maddux are great pitchers, but any resemblance ends there.

``They're not similar at all,'' Braves manager Bobby Cox said. ``Randy is as good a strikeout pitcher as I've ever seen. Maddux is as good of a control-type pitcher as I've ever seen, moving the ball around and changing speeds.''

Maddux's postseason record isn't as grim as Johnson's, but it's not great either. Maddux is 257-146 in his regular-season career, yet is 10-11 in the postseason, including 4-6 in the NLCS. He has a simple explanation.

``Probably the biggest thing is I don't get to face the last-place teams,'' he said. ``That has a lot to do with it. The guys you're facing are a lot better, and it's harder to beat good teams than bad teams. You don't get away with the mistakes in the postseason that you get away with during the season.''

Maddux hasn't pitched in a week, since he got no decision in Atlanta's 7-4 victory over Houston in Game 1 of their division series. The Braves haven't played since Friday. Arizona is coming off an emotional 2-1 triumph over St. Louis on Sunday night in Game 5.

``I think what happened yesterday or last week really doesn't matter anymore,'' Maddux said. ``I mean, it was easier on us sitting at home doing nothing that it was on them grinding and playing an extra two games. But who knows?''

Cox added right-hander Kevin Millwood to the roster and removed Ken Caminiti, but indicated he remains inclined to go with just three starters - Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Burkett - and leave the rest to what he calls ``the best bullpen that we've had.''

Brenly will go with Miguel Batista against Glavine on Wednesday. Curt Schilling, who allowed one run in 18 innings in his two victories in the division series, will face Burkett in Game 3 on Friday in Atlanta. Brenly said he will send Albie Lopez to the mound in Game 4, despite the right-handers poor showing against St. Louis.

Braves catcher Paul Bako remained in Atlanta for the birth of his son on Monday following his wife's difficult pregnancy. Cox said Bako would be in Phoenix in time for Tuesday's game.

The Diamondbacks won five of seven against the Braves in the regular season, including a three-game sweep in Atlanta Aug. 10-12 to start a season-best nine-game winning streak.

This is Atlanta's 10th consecutive trip to the postseason, yet the Braves have only one World Series championship in that span. This Atlanta team, short on power hitters, won the fewest games of any NL playoff team, but played its best at the finish.

``There are times where I guarantee we didn't think we could be here,'' said John Smoltz, who has emerged as a formidable weapon as Atlanta's closer. ``We struggled all year. We never turned it on.''

Then came a sweep of Houston in the division series, and the Braves are back where they always seem to be.