The reputation of the Atlanta Braves' pitching rotation as baseball's best is basically unchallenged.
The ability of the big four--Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery--has been documented during the Braves' dominance of the '90s.
It's their durability that is often overlooked.
In an era in which elbow and shoulder reconstruction have become common, and the hazy condition known as tendinitis often shelves pitchers for months, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Avery have pitched 6,483 2/3 major league innings without once having visited the disabled list.
In the four seasons beginning in 1992, while averaging about 33 starts a year, discounting strike-abbreviated 1994, the big four has missed a total of four starts.
Maddux, who leads the major leagues in victories, starts, complete games and innings since 1988, missed an Aug. 14 start this year because of flu.
Smoltz missed an August start last year because of bone chips in his elbow and ultimately had surgery during the strike.
Glavine missed two starts in 1992 because of a rib injury.
Good genes, pitching coach Leo Mazzone said, obviously contribute to the resiliency of his vaunted starters. However, three other factors are critical, he said.
--Manager Bobby Cox never abuses his starters, never asks them to do more than they are physically capable of doing.
--They all are able to change speeds, which allows them to stack innings without feeling the stress of a power pitcher.
--The Atlanta program emphasizes throwing as often as possible to maintain good mechanics and flexibility.
"As opposed to throwing all-out one time between starts, as most clubs do, we throw as much as possible between starts without exertion," Mazzone said.
"Pitching is feel and touch, making the ball do something without exertion, and that's what we're trying to establish and maintain with this program."
Glavine, for instance, tends to throw off the mound every day. His 91 victories are one more than Maddux has and the most in the major leagues since 1991.
Maddux, Smoltz and Avery often throw twice between starts, sometimes more.
Smoltz, who faces the Cleveland Indians in Game 3 of the World Series tonight, has not pitched in a game since his victory over the Cincinnati Reds in Game 3 of the National League championship series almost two weeks ago.
"I've been off for 13 days," he said. "If I didn't have this program to rely on, it would be tough to go into this start and expect to be sharp.
"But I'm drawing off 1993 when I had 10 days off before I pitched against the [Philadelphia] Phillies [in the league championship series] and I pitched a good game that day, so this program is definitely a big part of it.
"I mean, I've been throwing a lot on the side for eight years now and am a firm believer in it. I did have bone chips but that's something I'm told is part of your body makeup.
"Every pitcher has it at some point. It's not a matter of having bad mechanics or good mechanics. In this program we not only throw on the side a lot, we work on arm mechanics continually.
"It's something we all do . . . me, Glavine, Maddux, Avery, and everybody has good mechanics."
Mazzone has been developing pitchers at various levels of the organization since 1979. The program he advocates is taught throughout the system and stems from tutoring he received under Johnny Sain, whom Mazzone calls the greatest pitching coach ever and who believed frequent, but low-intensity, throwing build strength and proper mechanics.
The Braves bring their pitchers to spring training two weeks early and have them throw eight or nine times in that period to build a foundation. The pitchers do not shag balls in the outfield during spring batting practice. Any and all throwing is done from a mound.
"You see pitchers running the hills with a parachute on their back in spring training," Mazzone said, stretching the point. "What's that got to do with pitching?"
The Atlanta pitchers run, but build at a slow pace.
Mazzone believes the program combines the best attributes of a five-man rotation, in which pitchers stay more sound, and a four-man, in which they stay sharper.
"My greatest satisfaction comes from the fact our pitchers believe in what we're doing and you see the results when they go to the post," he said. "Every pitcher on the staff is treated the same. If a new guy joins the staff, we ease him into it, but it's not a hard sell because of our track record."
The record keeps getting better. The Indians have been held to eight hits and a .125 batting average through the first two games of the Series.
The Atlanta starters have a 1.88 earned-run average over the last six games, including the four-game sweep of the Reds in the league championship series, and a 2.82 ERA for 10 postseason games.
Although it seems as if they have been together for a decade, Maddux and Glavine are only 29, Smoltz is 28, and Avery is 25. All are signed through 1996 or beyond, except Avery, whose bargaining status may hinge on what work rules are in effect. Kent Mercker, who made $2.24 million as the No. 5 starter, is likely to become a free agent, making room for Jason Schmidt, up from the farm system and soon to be with the program, if he isn't already.