Braves have old feeling back

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ATLANTA --- As the Braves packed their bags for the longest road trip of the season, televisions throughout the Turner Field clubhouse were set to a channel replaying the team's greatest moment in Atlanta.

The 1995 World Series championship.

Hmmm, could that be a prescient bit of programming? Because it's sure starting to seem like old times around here.

Once a perennial powerhouse, Atlanta hasn't made it to the postseason since 2005, the last year in its unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles. But when the Braves headed to Los Angeles, the initial stop Thursday on a crucial 11-game trip, they were baseball's hottest team and holding down first place in the NL East.

"This is what it's supposed to be like around here," said Chipper Jones, the last player left from the 1995 title team. "I got to experience it the first 11 years of my career. Now some of these other guys are finally getting to experience it."

Indeed, the Braves used to be as much a part of the fall landscape as the changing leaves. Granted, they became as well known for their futility in the postseason (only one World Series title in 14 tries) as they were for always getting there. But a four-season playoff drought has driven home just how impressive that streak was.

This year started out like another disappointment in the making. Atlanta ended April at 9-14, already five games off the pace and reeling from a nine-game losing streak.

Then came the May turnaround.

The Braves went 20-8 and snatched away first place from two-time defending NL champion Philadelphia on the final day of the month. June began with two more wins over the slumping Phillies, completing a sweep and leaving Atlanta with an eight-game winning streak (its longest since 2003), 18 wins in its past 22 games and a 21/2-game lead in the division race.

"They're good," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "They're going to be right there at the end."

The pitching has been solid all season, but a rejuvenated offense led the surge. Give credit to manager Bobby Cox for making three pivotal decisions:

- Martin Prado and heralded rookie Jason Heyward shifted to the top two spots in the batting order. Prado was leading the NL in hitting (.324), while the 20-year-old Heyward was pacing the team in on-base percentage (.412).

- Eric Hinske began playing more. He went into Thursday night's game against the Dodgers batting .326 with four homers and 22 RBI in only 86 at-bats.

- Most important, Troy Glaus kept his starting job at first base even after a miserable first month. He responded by leading the NL with 28 RBI in May.

Not bad for a player who missed most of last season recovering from shoulder surgery and signed a bargain one-year, $1.75 million contract with the Braves.

"I think the key to their team is Glaus," Manuel said. "If Glaus hits 25 to 30 home runs, that's 75 to 80 runs for them. That's going to really set them up. Because with Chipper Jones and (Brian) McCann, that gives them a lot of pop in their lineup."

Actually, Jones (.240) and McCann (.254) haven't done much -- another reason for the Braves to be hopeful that their impressive play isn't a fluke.

The lineup will look even better if those two sluggers start putting up more familiar numbers.


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