09/28/2003 5:10 PM ET
Braves win to gain NL home field
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
PHILADELPHIA -- When Braves manager Bobby Cox's team stumbled out of the gate in April, it was easy for the doomsayers to predict the end of a dynasty.
But when the 162-game marathon ended with a 5-2 win over the Phillies in the final game at Veterans Stadium, Cox's troops had secured home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs and compiled a 101-61 record that tied the Yankees for the best in the Majors.
"It was good," Cox said. "We got home-field advantage, if that means anything. But I know it does to our fans, who get to see the extra game, and it makes the guys feel good too."
When Braves ace Russ Ortiz takes the mound against the Cubs in Game 1 of the Division Series on Tuesday night at Turner Field, the 21-game winner will be starting for a team that won nine of its final 13 games and returned to the dominant form it had displayed throughout most of the season.
It doesn't come as a coincidence that the late-season surge began one day after Gary Sheffield responded to a 8-10 skid by challenging his teammates to regain some of the aggression that he thought they had lost.
"It just proves that it was needed," Sheffield said. "We needed to do what we were doing before when we were having success, instead of just allowing ourselves to just go out there and go through the motions. We could win games that way, but it wasn't going to help us in the playoffs. We needed to get a playoff feel heading into the playoffs and I think we've got that now."
The Braves also have a formidable postseason rotation in Ortiz, Mike Hampton and Greg Maddux, who prepared for Friday's Game 3 start at Wrigley Field by finally conquering the Phillies in the regular-season finale.
"We wanted to get a win and take care of home-field advantage," Maddux said. "We did that, so, yeah, it was a good day."
Maddux, who had gone 0-3 with a 9.45 ERA in his previous four starts against the Phillies this year, allowed two earned runs on four hits in five innings to leave him with a career-high 3.96 ERA.
"I've had better," Maddux said of the ERA, which was bound to be high all season because he had an 11.05 mark after his first three starts of the season.
There is a possibility that this was the final regular-season start in a Braves uniform for Maddux, who will be a free agent at the end of this year. But for now the only pitcher to ever win at least 15 games over 16 consecutive seasons is simply looking forward to adding one more World Series title to his impressive resume.
During this October run, Maddux will continue to pitch to Javy Lopez, who ended the season with career highs in batting average (.328), homers (43) and RBIs (109).
Lopez was behind the plate for each of Maddux's final three regular-season starts. During that time, the hurler was 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA.
"I've never had a problem throwing to Javy," said Maddux, who over the years has utilized the likes of Charlie O'Brien, Eddie Perez, Paul Bako and Henry Blanco as his primary catcher.
Sheffield, who aided a decisive three-run fourth inning with an RBI single against Phillies starter Kevin Millwood, completed his monster season with a career-high 132 RBIs, which in the NL was bettered only by Preston Wilson.
While Sheffield and Maddux may not return to Atlanta next year, Millwood is simply wishing his time in a Braves uniform hadn't ended in a financially influenced trade last December. The right-hander allowed five earned runs on 11 hits in four innings to leave him 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA against his former team this year.
As Millwood exited the field to a hearty round of boos, the mild-mannered right-hander tossed his glove and hat into the crowd that may have seen his last days in a Phillies uniform. The free agent-to-be will now return to his Atlanta-area home and be surrounded by the postseason buzz that he had enjoyed in years past.
"I thought he was just giving something back to the fans," Maddux said of Millwood's action, which he planned to do whether he won or lost on this memorable day at The Vet.
Millwood has remained close with many of his former Braves teammates and showed this with the concern on his face after hitting Mark DeRosa in the right hand with a pitch in the fourth inning.
DeRosa, who believes he'll be ready to play on Tuesday night, said he told Millwood that he had broken his hand when the Phillies right-hander called the Braves clubhouse to check on his condition.
When DeRosa said he was just kidding the always-likeable Millwood responded, "It looked like you might have broken it the way you were making those mud pies in the dirt."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.