Originally created 07/09/98

Braves let loose in cage



ATLANTA -- John Smoltz is standing around the cage with a bat in his hand and a smile on his face.

He has just boisterously informed outfielder Michael Tucker as to whom is the first-round leader in their unofficial home run derby.

"Two jacks, Tuck!" shouts the Braves pitcher, who is playfully talking up a pair of batting practice home runs he had just launched at Turner Field. "How many have you hit out? None! That's right, none, baby! No way you're catching me today."

A little trash talking between teammates.

A little extra loop in the swing.

A bit of bravado.

And a couple of bombs to delight the fans.

For the Braves, that's what BP is all about.

Sure, there is business to tend to. But batting practice is more than that. It provides players a chance to get ready both physically and mentally for a ballgame.

"They have to have fun sometimes, and basically that comes in the last couple of minutes of BP," Braves hitting coach Clarence Jones says. "The first part of BP, all the players are trying to prepare for the game, but by the end, they like to loosen up a little bit and maybe try to hit some out."

Before each home game, the Braves get one hour and 15 minutes to take BP, followed by the visiting team, which gets only 40 minutes. The routine begins two hours and 45 minutes before scheduled game time, meaning that for a 7:40 p.m. game, BP begins at 4:55.

It is the responsibility of the hitting coach to organize BP, so Jones sits down at his locker after he gets the starting lineup from manager Bobby Cox and makes up hitting groups.

Pitchers hit first, followed by the reserve outfielders. Then the reserve infielders, and finally the starters. Nos. 1-4 in the lineup hit in the next-to-last group, followed by Nos. 5-8.

Each group of four or five hitters usually takes 15 minutes.

Hitters begin their turn with a bunt, then try to simulate a hit-and-run by taking the next pitch to the opposite field. Next comes eight regular swings, and the batter runs the bases after the last swing.

The Braves coaches take turns throwing BP, and generally will serve up fastballs exclusively.

"We only have 10 minutes to throw, so you really can't throw them breaking pitches and risk throwing them only five minutes worth of strikes," Jones said. "You try to give them as many swings as you possibly can, so we try to give them fastballs over the plate that they can hit."

While he observes each hitter closely, Jones will offer only a minimal amount of instruction during BP.

"Basically, there is not much teaching going on at this point. There's more observing, watching if they are over-striding, watching to see if they are spinning and coming off the ball," Jones says. "Most of the work comes inside in the cages."

With batting cages adjacent to the clubhouse, the Braves do the bulk of their pre-game hitting inside.

Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, Walt Weiss, Keith Lockhart and Tucker, Jones says, are the Braves' most notorious "cage rats." Hitters can utilize pitching machines and batting tees as well as face live pitching.

"It's a great place to get your work done and to correct something that might be wrong," Lockhart says.

As an aside, batting practice can also provide players a chance to talk to the media, say hello to friends on the opposing team, and sign autographs.

"BP is very important to some guys and it's not to other guys," Jones says. "Some guys don't feel right unless they get good swings on the field and others will do their most serious preparations in the cage.

"The main thing, though, is to get loose, because if you step in against a guy throwing 90 mph and you're not loose, you're not going to catch up."

Batting practice schedule

For 7:40 p.m. games

Braves pitchers hit -- 4:55

Braves reserve OF hit -- 5:10

Braves reserve IF hit -- 5:25

Braves starters, 1-4 hit -- 5:40

Braves starters, 2-8 hit -- 5:55

Visitors hit -- 6:10

Braves infield -- 6:50

Visitors infield -- 7:00

Ground crew -- 7:10