ATLANTA - While the rest of the National League worries about little annoyances like divisional races and wild-card possibilities, the Atlanta Braves have set their cruise control.
A fifth straight trip to the postseason is all but assured for the defending World Series champions, who have overcome myriad injuries to build the best record in baseball and a commanding lead in the NL East.
This is history in the making: Only two teams, the New York Yankees and the Oakland A's, have gone beyond the regular season five consecutive times. With a 12-game lead over Montreal before Thursday's action, the Braves are a lock to make it three.
"It's good to have the big lead," third baseman-turned-shortstop Chipper Jones said. "You can play everybody and give guys some days off. We have some new people - Andruw (Jones), Terry (Pendleton), (Luis) Polonia, the bullpen guys - and it takes some time to fit in. This is a good time for them to mesh."
Of all the Braves' success this decade - NL pennants in 1991 and '92, a West Division title in '93 and the World Series victory last season - this may go down as their most trying - and satisfying - year.
David Justice, the team's No. 5 hitter and a key run-producer, was lost in May with a shoulder injury. Starting pitcher Steve Avery has been out for six weeks with a pulled muscle and may not return until mid-September. Shortstop Jeff Blauser is sidelined with a broken bone in his hand.
"The biggest thing is getting guys healthy," 20-game winner John Smoltz said. "We feel like we're still the team to beat. But if the playoffs were to start tomorrow, we're hurting."
Of course, the Braves always seem to overcome whatever adversity comes their way. When the injuries began mounting, John Schuerholz waved his magic wand and - voila - proved again he is the best general manager in baseball.
Pendleton was acquired from Florida for a minor leaguer. Polonia was signed after being released by Baltimore. Andruw Jones, a 19-year-old phenom, was called up from the minors. So was pitcher Joe Borowski. Another reliever, Dean Hartgraves, was acquired on waivers from Houston.
With Blauser hurt, Pendleton took over at third, allowing the Braves to move Chipper Jones back to shortstop, the position he played in the minors. In spite of an unshortstop-like frame (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), Jones has fielded the position flawlessly and not let it affect him at the plate, putting together a 15-game hitting streak.
Polonia and Andruw Jones strengthened the bench and added flexibility to the lineup. The Braves began the year as a predominately left-handed-hitting team, but they had seven right-handers in the lineup Wednesday night when the Reds started a left-hander. Then, with right-hander Jeff Brantley on the mound in the ninth, the left-handed-hitting Polonia delivered a game-winning sacrifice fly.
"We have a darn good bench," Smoltz said. "It's as good from top to bottom as it's been in a while. And that's what you need in the playoffs, the total package."
The pitching staff, meanwhile, has managed to endure injuries to Avery and fifth starter Jason Schmidt.
Rookie Terrell Wade (4-0, 2.12 ERA before Thursday's start against Cincinnati) and nine-year veteran Mike Bielecki (4-2, 2.47) moved into the rotation and their spots in the bullpen were taken by Borowski (1-0, 2.61) and Hartgraves (1-0, 0.00).
Now, with a commanding lead in the East, manager Bobby Cox can begin to rest his Big Three - Smoltz (20-6, 2.89), Greg Maddux (11-10, 2.69) and Tom Glavine (13-7, 2.82) - before the playoffs.
"We've got to shore up the pitching a little bit," Smoltz said. "We've got to get healthy and get some rest. Even though on the outside it may look like we're all rested, it begins to take its toll toward the end of the year when you build up innings. So a rest here and there would be great."
They better rest now. Once again, the Braves will be busy in October.
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