No Justice For Braves The Rest of 1996
ATLANTA (AP) _ Seven years ago, Dwight Smith and Jerome Walton were budding stars in the Chicago Cubs outfield. The Atlanta Braves hope they can turn back the clock this season.
Right fielder David Justice, one of the team’s best hitters, is out for the year with a dislocated right shoulder that will require surgery next week.
It was the first serious injury suffered by a key player during the Braves’ five-plus years as one of baseball’s best teams. Now, the spotlight is clearly on Smith and Walton, who will platoon in right field.
``Me and Jerome are no slouches,″ said Smith, a left-handed hitter who was batting .192 with one homer and three RBIs going into Friday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds. ``We’ve been in this position before.″
In 1989, Walton and Smith finished 1-2 in the NL rookie of the year voting, leading the Cubs to the Eastern Division title. But Smith hasn’t been a starter since 1993, Walton since ’91.
``We’re not David Justice, we’re not going to try to be David Justice,″ Smith said. ``I don’t think we’ll put up some of the power numbers that Justice put up, but if guys get on base, we’ll get them in. We’re experienced guys.″
For now, the Braves are talking bravely about carrying on without Justice, who was hitting .321 with six homers and 25 RBIs when he injured his shoulder Wednesday night swinging against Denny Neagle of Pittsburgh.
General manager John Schuerholz said there are no plans to make a trade to fill the gaping hole in the lineup, and manager Bobby Cox believes a platoon of Smith and the right-handed-hitting Walton, batting .405 before Friday, will be effective.
``We don’t worry about (Justice’s) numbers anymore because he’s not there,″ Cox said. ``I think Smitty and Jerome will fill in beautifully. I really do.″
Walton, though, continues to be bothered by a nagging groin injury that was re-aggravated in a series last weekend. If he doesn’t improve, Cox plans to use rookie Jermaine Dye, called up to fill Justice’s spot on the roster.
Dye homered in his first major-league at-bat Friday as the Braves beat Cincinnati 8-2.
The Braves had hoped Justice’s injury could be treated without surgery and he would miss four to six weeks. However, the shoulder never fully recovered from a similar injury last season, and the team doctor feared it would not heal without surgery.
``Even if he was able to come back, he would be so apprehensive because of how unstable his shoulder is now that he would be ineffective as a player,″ Dr. Joe Chandler said.
Justice will undergo surgery next Thursday, and it is highly unlikely he will be able to return late in the season. If anything, Chandler said, the player could still be feeling the effects of his surgery next spring.
``The rehabilitation from this injury is long and arduous,″ Chandler said. ``Frequently, it’s a full year before a person gets back to full speed without apprehension or a sense of pain.″
Justice has been bothered by injuries throughout his career, from a strained back that caused him to miss nearly two months in 1991 to the original shoulder injury when he dove for a ball last year and missed nine games.
Still, he was especially apprehensive about this latest setback.
``Yeah, I’m scared about it, but I know it’s something that has to be done,″ Justice said in the clubhouse before Friday’s game.
In seven-plus seasons with the Braves, Justice hit 160 homers with 522 RBIs, including a 40-homer, 120-RBI season in 1993. Last year, he hit 24 homers and drove in 78 runs.
The Braves have been fortunate to avoid serious injuries since they became a National League power in 1991. Catcher Greg Olson missed the 1992 World Series after breaking his leg, but that injury occurred late in the season.
``We’ve had some players hurt from time to time,″ Schuerholz said, ``but we’ve not had very many catastrophic injuries. Our players take a lot of pride in the physical well-being.″
Ryan Klesko, leading the team with 13 homers, will move up to bat fifth against right-handers, with Smith or Walton filling the No. 6 slot. Against left-handers, catcher Javy Lopez (.307, five homers, 23 RBIs) will bat fifth and Klesko seventh.
``We’ve got a very powerful lineup,″ Schuerholz said. ``It was more powerful with (Justice) in it, but it’s still powerful without him.″