ATLANTA -- In November, soon after the World Series ends, Rafael Furcal will likely be named the National League's Rookie of the Year.
Whether the Atlanta Braves own a second World Series championship will also largely depend on the diminutive leadoff hitter.
Furcal, all of 19 years old and with less than five months of big league ball under his belt, has become the fire that stokes the Braves' offensive engine. When he's on base, creating a distraction and, ultimately, havoc on the opposing team, the Braves make the game look easy.
"It's hard to find a 19-year-old kid who plays the way he does," said second baseman Quilvio Veras, whose season-ending knee injury last month forced Furcal into the leadoff role. "He does everything. He looks like he's got experience already. The thing is, he knows what's going on."
Furcal, hitting .304, has 26 steals and a .414 on-base percentage, second-best among the major league's leadoff hitters. Despite missing three weeks in June and July with a hamstring injury, he has scored 62 runs, the club's third-best total (behind the Jones boys), and has already broken the Atlanta rookie stolen base record.
"He's driving the other team's infielders crazy," first baseman Andres Galarraga said. "I've never seen so many hits and errors (caused) by one player. Everybody's in a hurry.
"He's not afraid of anything. He doesn't look like a rookie, he looks like he's been in the game a long time."
Now the question is, how will Furcal handle the increased pressure and scrutiny of the postseason? Without him reaching base consistently and creating runs, the Braves won't win. But, carrying a team's hopes is a heavy load for any youngster, particularly one who has never played October baseball.
"It's a cutthroat atmosphere," said third baseman Chipper Jones, who was 23 when he broke into the major leagues in 1995. "A lot of people think that this game is played at its highest level all the time during the season, but that's not the case. It's taken to another level during the postseason."
"Mistakes are magnified because the games are so much more important," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "Sometimes your instincts are not to make a mistake, as much as they are to make a play, and that's when guys get into trouble in pressure situations."
Some young players thrive in the postseason. Two months after making his debut, Andruw Jones hit two home runs in his first World Series game. In his first playoff series, Chipper Jones hit .389 against the Rockies, then followed up with a .438 average against the Reds in the NLCS.
"My advice to him will be, just play the same baseball," Andruw Jones said. "There's going to be some pressure, just don't try and do too much. Sometimes players go out and try and do too much and it ruins their game. It's going to be difficult, but I think he can handle it. He'll be all right. He'll get on base because he's a talented guy. He'll probably do a lot of damage."
Said hitting coach Merv Rettenmund, "He's got to do what the other guy (Veras) did -- he's got to make the offense go. He's good enough to do it."
On the team's last trip to Arizona, St. Louis and Cincinnati, Furcal, who will turn 20 next week, showed what he has in store for playoff opponents. He reached base 21 times in nine games, stole three bases and scored eight runs.
With the second-place Mets breathing down the Braves' necks, Furcal was 14 for 36 (.389), a performance that lessened fears the kid will crumble under October pressure.
Since Veras went down, the Braves are 20-10 with Furcal at leadoff.
"He's not your average 19-year-old," Glavine said. "Unless something drastic changes between now and October, he's going to have some pressure situations going down the stretch. Hopefully whatever pressure he faces in September will prepare him for the postseason."
Said Chipper Jones, "I don't think it will be that big of an adjustment for him. If there's a subtle adjustment, it won't take him long to get past it."
Four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux isn't surprised by Furcal's success. He had heard of the speedy Dominican, but had never seen him play until he made a spring training start in early March.
"Furcal was playing second and there was a weak grounder to Chipper Jones," Maddux remembered. "I was hoping to get the lead runner and Furcal turned a double play. I said, what's up with that?
"He runs faster than anybody else, he throws harder than anybody else and he's not clueless at the plate. He plays older than he is."
It's fair to say the Braves are pinning their postseason hopes on their young shortstop. If he reaches base consistently, they will play in another World Series. If he doesn't and the lineup has to rely on its big boppers to produce home runs, it might be an early autumn for a team that's become accustomed to playing until the first frost.
"It's no more pressure for me," Furcal said. "I'll be more excited. You have to have your head more in the game. I'm looking to continue playing like I am right now. I don't feel any pressure. Sometimes you have a good game, sometimes you don't. In your mind, you know you're not going to have a good game very day."
Said Andruw Jones, "I've never seen him nervous. He's real relaxed, he's enjoying (playing in the majors)."
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