Pressure Is All on the Braves : National League: Having lost in last two World Series, Atlanta feels pinch of being called baseball's Bills.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So what's all this talk about pressure? About going the way of the Buffalo Bills?

Merely because the Atlanta Braves have lost in the World Series the last two years, does that mean they should take throat medication to Veterans Stadium tonight when they begin playing for their third consecutive National League pennant?

"The pressure is definitely there, but it's been easier on them since we made the playoffs," said Fred McGriff, whose arrival in midseason turned the Braves around.

"The team got down to spring training this year and there were posters saying, 'How the West Was Won,' and suddenly they were 10 games out of first place."

The Philadelphia Phillies, winners of the East Division title, had to go to the dictionary to answer a question involving a word like pressure.

"This is a game--if we lose are we going to go shoot ourselves?" John Kruk said. "Who gives a damn? If you win, you go on, and if you lose, you go home. Not bad choices."

And the Braves?

"Everybody is counting us out," Kruk said. "If (the Braves) don't win, they will be in bad shape."

With four of the best starting pitchers in the game, Atlanta clearly is the favorite in this best-of-seven series, which begins with two games here before moving to Atlanta. The Phillies have hit Atlanta pitching well this season, but the Braves have hit everyone's pitching well since the arrival of McGriff. They are averaging 5.8 runs for the 67 games since he arrived from the San Diego Padres.

The Braves and Phillies split their season series, 6-6.

"I think the pressure is on them," said Phillie reliever Mitch Williams, who saved 43 games. "They were supposed to run away with their division and we were supposed to finish somewhere below the (expansion Florida) Marlins.

"We are the underdogs, but all of us have been underdogs our whole lives. When (General Manager) Lee Thomas assembled a bunch of guys here, it was like, 'Come here, or go play in prison.' "

From the start of the season, when the Braves struggled offensively but had enough good pitchers to staff another franchise, it was clear from the fans' perspective that anything less than a World Series championship would be a failure. Manager Bobby Cox used that as a motivational tool.

"I can say that there is nothing more I want right now than that ring," said left-hander Steve Avery (18-6), who will start for the Braves tonight against Phillie right-hander Curt Schilling (16-7).

Avery has a 3-1 record with a 2.96 earned-run average in postseason play. This will mark his third consecutive playoff, and he is only 23.

"He's 16 years old, throws 95 m.p.h., has a great breaking ball and a great changeup," Kruk said. "But other than that, nothing's special about Avery.

"Maybe he's 18 now, but I don't think he shaves yet. It makes me feel like an old man when I go out there to hit off him."

Avery will be followed in the playoff rotation by Greg Maddux (20-10) and Tom Glavine (22-6). John Smoltz (15-11), who is 5-0 with a 2.13 ERA in postseason play, is scheduled to start Game 4 and pitch in relief if necessary in the first couple of games.

"Yeah, they have good pitching, but we are not as dumb as we appear--we don't swing at too many bad pitches," said Kruk, who has recovered from recent muscle spasms in his back and will start. "I'd have to be six feet under (not to play). After eight years of losing, I have a chance to do something. What's a back?"

Schilling, 0-2 with a 6.65 ERA in four starts against Atlanta this season, will be followed by Tommy Greene, who is 10-0 at Veterans Stadium this season, and 1-0 against the Braves. Terry Mulholland (12-9) and Danny Jackson (12-11) will follow Greene.

"If you can't put up in a game like this, you never will be able to," said Schilling, who, as always, will leave a ticket for his late father. "If my dad were alive, he would probably tell me that this is what we spent our whole lives preparing for, even though it was always a game and not the most important thing in the world. He would tell me to enjoy it. Have fun."

David Justice--who hit 40 home runs and drove in 120 runs--said Tuesday that this Brave team is a more mature one than the previous two, a great team with a great bunch of guys who play hard and shouldn't be judged as chokers if they don't win a World Series. But the other day, he faced reality.

"We went to spring training knowing that if we lost the World Series again we'd be thought of as failures," he said. "We haven't done anything until we win the Series."

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