ATLANTA -- Rafael Furcal recently celebrated his 20th birthday. Or his 24th, depending on whose birth certificate, his or HBO's, you deem more credible.
Nevertheless, watching this Dominican rookie effortlessly glide through his first September pennant race makes you forget all about his age. Watch him work counts, ignite scoring rallies and sparkle with defensive web gems, and one marvels at Furcal and his rapid ascension through the Braves' farm system, not the number of candles on the cake.
"He definitely plays older than he is," teammate Keith Lockhart said. "When I was 19 I was at a junior college just trying to make the team. I wasn't leading off and playing second base for a playoff team."
That's where one could find Furcal on Monday in the Braves' most important game to date, a 6-3 win over the New York Mets to start the three-game series.
The Braves have not had a rookie of the year candidate since Chipper Jones lost unjustly to a Japanese import in 1995. David Justice won the award in 1990, hitting many home runs for a last place team.
Here's Furcal, the front-runner for this year's award, using his glove and his eye to further cement his stock before the skeptical New York press.
"Day in, day out, he's just been very consistent for us," first baseman Andres Galarraga said. "He's been everything we needed. He's not a rookie anymore."
Who knew? At the start of spring training, the Braves' brass seemed divided on Furcal. Because of his teen-age years and a career short on professional experience, some felt another season of minor-league acclimation would be necessary.
But Bobby Cox fell in love with his arm, his range, his speed and got greedy. Suddenly, a player who had reached as high as Class A Myrtle Beach in the Braves' developmental chain found himself wresting away the starting shortstop position from Walt Weiss and becoming a vital cog in the Braves' season.
When injury felled Quilvio Veras after the All-Star break, Furcal proved versatile enough to switch to second base, and to move from eighth in the lineup to first, becoming the leadoff hitter the Braves have long desired. His on-base percentage, at .396, is tops among National League rookies, as are his 76 runs scored.
In all of 409 major league at-bats, Furcal has found plate patience, not exactly the dominant rookie trait. His walk on five pitches set off the Braves' decisive three-run third inning.
"I threw him good pitches, and he stayed away," Mets starter Mike Hampton said. "That's what he does -- he works to get on base for the big hitters."
"These young guys have no fear," Lockhart said. "He doesn't realize what the situation is, or probably how he's supposed to be overwhelmed by it. You look at what he's done for us, how he's played both short and second, and taken over the leadoff when Quilvio went down, and Ralphy certainly gets my vote."
While Furcal's 22 errors are a mix of youth and position, you trade the mistakes for the upside.
Furcal has, by far, the strongest arm of any National League middle infielder, and he's certainly trigger happy to show it off. He popped it off twice Monday. First, to conclude the first inning he smothered an Edgardo Alfonzo ball deep in the hole, planted his feet and fired, getting the Alfonzo by more than a step.
Then there was the third, when fellow rookie of the year candidate Jay Payton decided to test Furcal's arm with a slow chopper. Not only did Furcal reach the bouncer, but he threw Payton out while falling away from second.
"There are some times I wish he wouldn't throw so hard," said Galarraga, Furcal's elder by 19 years. "He's young, and sometimes he doesn't know any better."
Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.
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