ATLANTA -- In this part of the baseball world, division titles are taken for granted.
No one talks about magic numbers in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse. No one tacks on the caveat "if" when discussing postseason possibilities; it wouldn't seem natural in the conversation.
So, with the Braves cruising toward another trip to the playoffs -- this will be seven in a row for those who've lost count -- it's time to resurrect that seemingly timeless question:
Can Atlanta win another World Series?
"If you keep going back," third baseman Chipper Jones said, "you're eventually going to win another one."
The only stain on a decade of Braves' brilliance is the lonely, lone World Series title, captured in 1995. Three other times, Atlanta lost the World Series. Twice, including last year, the Braves were knocked off in the NL championship series.
Jones, who has been with the Braves for the last three postseason trips, believes this is their best team yet.
"Without a doubt," he said. "It's deeper. I think some of the guys have stepped up in the bullpen and taken on the responsibility of being THE guys down there. We're got a deep bench, a good bench with players who understand their roles and are ready when called upon. The everyday lineup is probably as good as any we've had."
Andres Galarraga (.310, 42 homers, 112 RBIs) provides a fearsome presence in the cleanup spot behind Jones, who has reached 30 homers for the second time and 100 RBIs for the third year in a row. Javy Lopez also has surpassed 30 homers and entered the weekend needing just three RBIs to reach triple figures.
The bench is stronger with Gerald Williams, Greg Colbrunn and Ozzie Guillen. The defense is solid. The starting rotation, with all five pitchers winning at least 13 games and two Cy Young candidates in Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, is once again the best in baseball.
"They've been on top of this thing for a long time," Houston second baseman Craig Biggio said. "Whoever plays them has their work cut out for them."
Likewise, though, Atlanta faces what appears to be the toughest postseason competition of its '90s reign, particularly from San Diego and Houston.
Both teams helped themselves during the season with trades -- the Astros got Randy Johnson, the Padres picked up Randy Myers -- while the Braves' main acquisition was Colbrunn.
"The parity in the National League is 10 times better than it has been in the past," Jones said. "It's going to be a tough road just to make it to the big dance against whoever comes out of the American League."
Just this past week, the Astros claimed two of three from the Braves at Turner Field as Johnson won the deciding game with a 10-strikeout performance against Maddux. Jones was already pondering the prospect of facing the Big Unit twice in a five-game series.
"Johnson gives them an advantage," he said. "But if we win every game he doesn't pitch, we'll be OK."
Of course, should the Braves survive the league playoffs, the New York Yankees are favored to be waiting in the World Series with a team even stronger than the one that defeated Atlanta for the championship two years ago.
"Nothing is a given," Jones said. "Last year, we were talking about that midsummer series with the Orioles being the World Series preview. As it turned out, neither one of us was the best team in our respective leagues. It just goes to show you can never assume anything."
As if to demonstrate that point, the Braves, with one of baseball's highest payrolls, wouldn't be where they are without this unlikely group:
--Kerry Ligtenberg, a one-time replacement player who was pitching in the independent Prairie League just three years ago, became the closer when Mark Wohlers fell apart.
--Setup man Rudy Seanez is with his seventh organization in a career that has included five trips to the disabled list. He had a 6.51 ERA for Triple-A Omaha last year and then was cut from the Mexican winter league because he didn't throw hard enough.
--Left-handed reliever John Rocker, left unprotected in the expansion draft, was passed over by both Arizona and Tampa Bay.
--Second baseman Keith Lockhart spent nine years in the minor leagues and didn't make it to the majors until he was just months away from his 30th birthday.
--Guillen, a valuable backup for injury-plagued shortstop Walt Weiss, was signed by the Braves in mid-season after getting released by Baltimore.
"The only thing they think about here is winning," Guillen said. "That's contagious. I never hear any talk about contracts. I never hear anybody say they're disappointed in someone for this or that."
Still, there are lingering doubts the Braves can win another World Series with a bullpen headed by Ligtenberg, Seanez and Rocker, who had a combined four major-league saves before this season.
"This will be my first time in the postseason, knock on wood," said Seanez, who seems a bit bewildered to find himself facing such a prime-time role. "I've never been there, so I don't know what to say about that."
If things don't work out for the Braves, there's always next year and a chance to answer these same questions all over again.
"This team is going be good for a while," Jones said. "We know that."
Is it good enough?
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