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In each of the past two seasons, the critics said, this would be the year that the Atlanta Braves would finally fall from their perch, unable to overcome repeated personnel losses. And each time, come October, there was manager Bobby Cox's squad, participating in the postseason, continuing a record-setting 14 consecutive playoff appearances. (Getting to the World Series, of course, has been another matter entirely; they haven't done it since 1999.)
The Braves' critics will be at it again this year, forecasting another fall. This time, however, they have their best case yet: The departure of pitching coach Leo Mazzone, one of the game's most acclaimed gurus. How can the loss of only one man, and a nonplayer at that, have such a dramatic impact on a team? Look at Mazzone's track record: He led the Braves' staff to nine major-league ERA leads in 16 years. Don't attribute that just to having probable Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, either; the Braves led the majors in 2004 (3.74), after both were gone, and have the majors' best ERA (3.77) since 2000, when neither pitcher was exactly in his heyday.