Braves coming on after being written off

Division run in trouble

wild-card hopes remain

July 22, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

It looked over. It had to be over.

The longest division title winning streak in professional sports appeared to be finished last month. There was little hope.

Then came July. And, amazingly, the light began flickering again at Turner Field. Although the Atlanta Braves likely won't win the National League East again this season, it no longer is a slam-dunk certainty that they'll miss the postseason.

That, in itself, is impressive.

"People have been giving up on us for the last four years and we have proved them wrong," Braves center fielder Andruw Jones said. "I don't know why we can't prove them wrong again. I think we are not out yet."

Last year, Jones helped carry a young and resilient Braves squad to its 14th consecutive division title - not including the 1994 strike year - something that hadn't been done in major professional sports.

To begin this season, the club had its doubters. Again.

After going 10-14 in April and then 18-11 in May, disaster struck in June. The club won just six of 27 games. By July 1, after losing 7-4 to the Orioles, the Braves were 34-47, 14 1/2 games behind the East-leading New York Mets and 10 games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the NL wild-card race.

"I know that it's gut wrenching for me," Braves ace John Smoltz said at the time. "This has been such a spoiled run. It's so much fun that you want to continue it. I really thought that we could hang in. I really did."

On July 2, the Braves beat the Orioles, 10-3, to win the three-game series in Atlanta. Since then, the Braves have looked like, well, the old Braves.

They won five of their next seven heading into the All-Star break. They then won their first five games of the second half - on the road against division leaders San Diego and St. Louis.

Heading into yesterday and a key four-game series in Philadelphia, the Braves were 45-50, still 12 games behind the Mets but just 4 1/2 in back of the Reds for the wild card. And although continuing the title run is a goal, making the playoffs is the club's primary focus.

"If going to a World Series means going through the wild card, we would have no problem with that at all," said Braves catcher Brian McCann, who grew up in Duluth, Ga., as a Braves fan.

World Series talk, of course, is premature. The club still hasn't reached the .500 mark. But its offense looks to have the firepower to propel it back into the race. In their first 15 games of July, the Braves scored 130 runs, or 8.7 per contest. They scored 10 or more runs in each of their first five games after the All-Star Break, the first time since 1930 that a club has scored in double digits in five straight games.

Atlanta's biggest problem has been its pitching, especially the back end of the bullpen. But general manager John Schuerholz attempted to fill that chasm Thursday by dealing catching prospect Max Ramirez to the Cleveland Indians for closer Bob Wickman.

It was a sign that the Braves weren't ready to give up, no matter if the sporting public removed them from the postseason talk a month ago.

Their opponents, however, never did.

"It is time to share the wealth. Spread the love around the division a little bit. They had a great run," Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard said jokingly. "But you can never count those guys out and they have been playing pretty well."

Tom Glavine, one of Atlanta's former aces, is in a unique situation. He was on the team in 1991 that began the streak. Now, he's a key pitcher for the Mets, who look like they will stop the streak.

"I think every player that is on the team that ends that streak is going to have a different sense of pride and accomplishment," Glavine said. "Me, maybe a little bit more because I came from there."

But he quickly mentioned that there is almost a full half of baseball left. And he's not making any assumptions. Even if the names and faces have changed, they are, after all, the Braves.

"Their history, their tradition lends you to believe that at some point and time they are going to get on a run and they are going to make themselves heard from," Glavine said. "I know nobody on our team is counting them out until they are mathematically eliminated."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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