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Pirates-Braves '92: Vive la difference!

The comparisons are easy to make.

The same two teams. The same core of stars. The same ingredients for the same result _ seven scintillating games decided by the narrowest of margins.

But with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves set to open the best-of-seven National League Championship Series here tonight with Doug Drabek opposing John Smoltz, what's getting the most attention is what's different from a year ago.

For the Braves: the contributions of speedster Otis Nixon, who missed the 1991 post-season because of a drug suspension; the chore of suddenly defending the soundness of their pitching rotation; the task of wrestling with the expectations that accompany the favorite's role.

For the Pirates: the mesmerizing performance of rookie knuckleballer Tim Wakefield; the ignominious possibility of losing three consecutive playoff series; the sizzling late-season performance of Barry Bonds, who has struggled in previous post-season play.

There's more. The Braves have a new catcher (Damon Berryhill, subbing for the injured Greg Olson) and a new closer (Jeff Reardon). The Pirates have a new starter (Danny Jackson) and a new part-time outfielder (former St. Petersburg Cardinals star Alex Cole).

So who sent up that S.O.S. _ same old story lines?

The most significant alteration to either lineup is Nixon.

He hit .294, stole 41 bases, posted an on-base percentage of .348 and generally made a pest of himself to opposing pitchers.

He also made the defensive play of the year _ leaping high over the centerfield wall July 25 to pull back what should have

been a two-run, ninth-inning homer by Pittsburgh's Andy Van Slyke, thus preserving a 1-0 Braves win and extending their winning streak to 13 games.

"Otis Nixon has turned into an everyday player who is a tremendous force in the league," Pirates manager Jim Leyland said Monday.

Nixon's strong season (including a .400 average, 11 runs scored and seven stolen bases in 12 games against Pittsburgh) and another MVP-caliber year from third baseman Terry Pendleton provided much of the offense for Atlanta. But this is a team based on pitching and defense _ "really good pitching and great defense," according to manager Bobby Cox.

But for the past month or so, the starting pitching hasn't been too good. By using a three-man rotation (Smoltz, Steve Avery and Tom Glavine), Cox will pass over his two hottest starters _ Charlie Leibrandt and Pete Smith.

Smoltz, Avery and Glavine posted a combined record of 46-31, but they are just 3-12 since Aug.

25. In their past 11 starts each, Avery has two wins and Smoltz one. Glavine, bothered by a cracked rib, has struggled to a 1-5 mark and 4.21 ERA in his past seven starts.

Cox insists his pitchers have been strong lately, just unfortunate in not getting wins. He says he detects few differences in his team's mental approach compared with last season.

"It's basically the same ballclub with the same attitude _ win, win win," Cox said. "And that's what we want to do."

But Smoltz said there is something different about having been here before _ and being expected to win again.

"Last year, it was kind of like we were on a mission and we had nothing to lose," Smoltz said. "We went at it kind of inexperienced and we learned a great deal. This year, we're approaching it like this is what we're supposed to be doing."

The Pirates, too, think they're supposed to be here. They also think they're supposed to win.

They're only the second team (joining the 1988-90 Oakland A's) since the 1976-78 seasons to reach the playoffs three consecutive times (when Philadelphia, Kansas City and the New York Yankees all did it). And they want to avoid joining the Phillies and Royals as three-time losers.

Both Leyland and Drabek say the past two years' failures have not increased the pressure.

"I'm not sure pressure's the right word," Leyland said. "There's a lot of anxiety, competitive spirit. I don't know that that's pressure. We don't feel we have to prove anything to anybody but ourselves. There's nobody in Pittsburgh, except for probably a few fans, that have been embarrassed and upset that we haven't won anything yet."

If the Pirates are to win, they'll need help from Bonds.

Leyland says he is "not expecting this to be the Barry Bonds Show." But the Pirates must get more than the .156 average, one RBI and an extra-base hit in 45 at-bats Bonds has in the past two playoff series.

His strong finish to a strong season (.311, 34 HRs, 103 RBI, 39 SBs, .624 slugging pct., .456 on-base percentage) could be a springboard to a big October.

Another player the Pirates are expecting a lot from is Wakefield. The former Florida Tech first baseman has only been pitching for four seasons and didn't reach the majors until July 31.

But he has posted an 8-1 record and 2.15 ERA in 13 starts and will be the Pirates' starter in Games 3 and 6. "He's been like a dynamite keg," Leyland said.

Nah, there's nothing new here.

You again?

Take a look at what's happened in each repeat pairing since the start of division play in 1969:

1969 Orioles d. Twins 3-0

1970 Orioles d. Twins 3-0

1973 A's d. Orioles 3-2

1974 A's d. Orioles 3-1

1976 Yankees d. Royals 3-2

1977 Yankees d. Royals 3-2

1977 Dodgers d. Phillies 3-1

1978 Dodgers d. Phillies 3-1

1977 Yankees d. Royals 3-2

1978 Yankees d. Royals 3-1

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