ATLANTA -- Rafael Furcal has come alive at the plate just in time to bolster his Rookie of the Year campaign.
The 20-year-old shortstop is riding an 11-game hitting streak (.404) and is hitting .345 this month with seven steals. He's also the hardest hitter to double up in the major leagues, having grounded into only two double plays, an average of one every 202.5 at-bats.
While acknowledging that the Mets' Jay Payton has a strong case, Braves manager Bobby Cox said Furcal should become the first Brave named Rookie of the Year since David Justice in 1990.
"He's playing a tough position, his stolen bases, his batting average," said Cox, ticking off Furcal's attributes. "He's constantly being scrutinized because of the high profile of the Braves and a pennant race and he's done nothing but great things."
Furcal leads Payton in batting average, trails him by 10 hits, leads all major league rookies with 36 stolen bases, leads NL rookies in walks and on-base percentage, and is second in runs.
Two Mets writers said Monday they favored Furcal over Payton for Rookie of the Year. Braves third baseman Chipper Jones seconded the vote.
"He certainly has a strong case," Jones said. "He was asked to step in as the leadoff man when Quilvio (Veras) went down and there's a lot of pressure on him, playing a very demanding position."
Payton and the Phillies' Pat Burrell will challenge Furcal. Burrell leads NL rookies with 16 home runs and 69 RBI. Payton leads in hits, total bases and slugging percentage.
"You can make a big case for (Payton," Cox conceded.
But, while Payton hits seventh in the Mets' lineup, Furcal is the Braves leadoff man. The lineup depends on him to reach base and create havoc, a responsibility Payton does not share.
"I think he has a very strong, legitimate case for Rookie of the Year," Jones said.
UP AND DOWN:
Javy Lopez hit .234 in August and was off to a terrible start this month before finding his swing again in the three weekend games in Phoenix. He was 6 for 13 with a pair of doubles and three RBI against the Diamondbacks, but still has only 10 hits in his last 41 at-bats (.244).
"I feel like my swing is perfect in the cage," he said. "But I'm swinging at bad pitches in the game. It doesn't matter how good your swing is, if you're swinging at bad pitches, the ball is not going anywhere."
Lopez set a goal of driving in 100 runs this season, but he's going to fall short. He had 79 RBI heading into Monday night's game against the Mets and he blames his frustration early in the season for preventing him from reaching his goal.
"I wasn't hitting at all and I got frustrated," he said. "Then, not making the All-Star team got me frustrated. I've just had too many headaches this year."
READY FOR STRETCH RUN:
Hampered by shoulder and legs problems for two months, Brian Jordan has got his swing straightened out this month. He's hitting .348 with seven RBI in September, but his sore right shoulder is limiting his power. He hasn't homered this month, hasn't gone deep since Aug. 23, and has only three home runs since the All-Star break.
Wally Joyner is giving Cox plenty of reason to sit the struggling Andres Galarraga, who has 15 strikeouts in his last nine games. Joyner is hitting .394 in his last 36 games and is batting .370 with runners in scoring position, as opposed to Galarraga's .285 average with runners on base. ... The Braves named their minor league pitchers and players of the year Monday. Damian Moss and Wes Helms were the winners from Class AAA Richmond; Derrick Lewis and Marcus Giles from Class AA Greenville; Christian Parra and Travis Wilson from Class A Myrtle Beach; Matt Butler and Jaeme Leal from Class A Jamestown; Quentin Jones and Alejandro Machado from Rookie League Danville; and Adam Wainwright and Kelly Johnson from the Rookie Gulf Coast League.
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