Braves are younger, but look is the same

Rebuilt with prospects, team is cruising toward 14th straight division title

Wild, Wild (nl) East

Dispatches from a division where every team is in the playoff race.

September 10, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The kings of the National League East arrived in Washington yesterday.

You have to call the Atlanta Braves kings, because presidents generally can't hang around for more than eight years. The Braves are on their way to clinching a 14th straight division title.

For half a season, it seemed the Washington Nationals might be the team to depose them. The Nationals pitched well almost every night and won close games in bunches. The Braves, meanwhile, seemed in disarray, their projected closer and corner outfielders unable to perform and their rotation beset by injuries.

So they started calling up prospects. Kelly Johnson, Wilson Betemit, Brian McCann and especially, Jeff Francoeur, gave the lineup a boost. Then the Braves pulled a customary solid trade, acquiring Kyle Farnsworth, a reliever with a 4.47 career ERA, and turning him into a closer. Andruw Jones went on a tear.

And in a matter of months, the team had reloaded again.

The Nationals and Braves entered last night's game - an 8-6 Washington win - on opposite paths. The Braves had swept a three-game series from the Mets and extended their division lead to six games. The Nationals had lost three in a row to the Marlins and dropped four games behind wild-card leader Houston.

The mood in the Braves' clubhouse couldn't have been lighter.

Players offered various reasons for their continued success.

"It starts at the top, man," outfielder Brian Jordan said. "They do a great job scouting and then they surround it all with good veterans. That's why the young talent makes adjustments so quickly."

Many players credited manager Bobby Cox, who has been there for all 13 division titles and stands seventh on the all-time win list.

"The No. 1 reason for me is Bobby Cox," catcher Johnny Estrada said. "He gets the best out of you whether you're a rookie or a 10-year veteran. He's the same guy every day, pumping us full of confidence."

John Smoltz, the only player who's been on all 13 division winners, said Cox has amazing patience. "When you play 162 games a year, you've seen a lot of things and you've gone through a lot of things, but he never gets down," he said. "I don't know how he does it."

Jordan, who has also played for Joe Torre and Tony La Russa, said Cox is the best manager he's seen. Others said pitching coach Leo Mazzone deserves plenty of credit. The Braves are always dragging excellent seasons out of pitchers like Jorge Sosa, Blaine Boyer and John Foster.

"[Cox has] an uncanny ability to get the best out of guys nobody else wanted," Estrada said. "He keeps it simple. He's gonna take your strength and improve on it. He's not gonna waste time looking for something that's never gonna be there."

Cox had a different reason. "Good players," he said, when asked to explain his success. "They change, but every time you lose one, you get another good one."

The Nationals, on the other hand, are fraying. Their offense is struggling for runs and injuries are hampering two of their best hitters, Jose Vidro and Nick Johnson.

But manager Frank Robinson said his team can't be counted out because it has plenty of games left against fellow contenders.

"If we take care of our business, we're going to gain ground on some of them," he said.

Nobody's been gaining ground on the Braves. They're back to facing questions about why they've won only one World Series despite all those playoff trips and about why this year might be different.

Smoltz said he's not sure what to expect in October. "It's difficult to say because we have so many young guys," he said. "We'll just have to wait and see how they handle it."

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