SAN DIEGO -- The last time the Atlanta Braves were in Qualcomm Stadium, a trip to the World Series was on the line.
Nothing so important is at stake during this three-day visit, but that doesn't mean the Braves have forgotten what happened last October.
"We'll treat the Padres the same (as in the NLCS)," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "We don't take anybody lightly. We've got to try and win a series, that's all."
The last series the two teams played was won by San Diego in six games, ending Atlanta's season last October. But since then, the Padres have lost Kevin Brown, Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley and reduced the payroll significantly, while winning public support for a new stadium. The defending National League champions aren't even the favorites to win their division, much less return to the postseason.
The differences between the two teams is striking. San Diego just completed a 2-7 road trip to New York, Chicago and Philadelphia and is off to a 10-17 start, trailing the West-leading Giants by six games. The Braves just completed a 7-2 homestand and are on top of the East again, leading the Mets by 2 1/2 games. More importantly, they have gotten off to a fast start despite a one-win April from Tom Glavine, a mediocre start by Jones and subpar performances from a pair of veterans.
What the Braves have received is production from a variety of players, rather than relying on two or three hitters to carry the load. Plus, they have gotten surprising work from a young bullpen (6-1, 3.50 ERA) and bench (.278, 10 RBI).
There's nothing impressive about Atlanta's individual numbers, not when leadoff man Otis Nixon is hitting .189 and Walt Weiss is hitting .243. Jones says the team is "winning ugly", which is probably the best description for the season's first month.
"Guys have been doing a good job of when the other team makes a mistake, of capitalizing on it," Jones said. "I don't care how we do it, whether we win by 12-3 or score three in the ninth, as long as we win."
What the individual numbers don't reflect is the lineup's overall balance. An offense that was reeling from the loss of Andres Galarraga in March is scoring runs in bunches, so many that it leads the league in production and is among the top four with a .276 average.
Five hitters have four or more home runs and at least 15 RBI, with Andruw Jones' production the most surprising. A hitter who struggled through a .204 April last year is batting .292 with five homers and 23 RBI, one behind Brian Jordan's club-leading total.
With the offense scoring early and often (except when Glavine pitches), there's less pressure on the starters to be perfect. That's good because they have been less than perfect often. Three starters -- Glavine, Greg Maddux and Kevin Millwood -- have earned run averages above 4.00 and if it weren't for John Smoltz, the rotation would be a group of .500 pitchers.
While the rotation sorts itself out, a group of no-name relievers has stepped up and offered some quality work. Kevin McGlinchy (0.73 ERA) and Rudy Seanez (0.69 ERA) have been almost perfect, while Mike Remlinger (1.93 ERA) and John Rocker (3-for-4 in save opportunities) complete a quartet of relievers who rank among the hardest throwers in the league.
What it all adds up to is a team that's ahead of last year's 106-win pace and ready to settle a score with the Padres.