Originally created 10/01/00

Braves succeed despite controversy, key injuries

ATLANTA -- Asked to characterize the Atlanta Braves' season, Bobby Cox paused and let his mind drift over the past six months.

Then, he mentally sorted through the past nine years and contrasted the past with the present.

When he finally spoke, it was in the tone of a man who has seen it all in 40 years of pro ball and won't be caught by surprise.

"It wasn't the easiest of years," he said. "We had some hot streaks, and we had some dismal days. I think this has been one of our toughest years."

Coming from a manager who lost his first baseman before the 1999 season ever started and his regular catcher four months later, that's quite an admission.

What the Braves did on their way to an unprecedented ninth straight division championship this season was take Cox and fans on a wild ride that careened from the heights of a 15-game win streak to the depths of second place in September.

In the words of Yogi Berra, it was deja vu all over again when John Smoltz was lost to elbow surgery last March. Thirteen months earlier the Braves learned first baseman Andres Galarraga would miss the season with lymphoma. Then, Javy Lopez was lost to knee surgery in July.

How could anything top losing two of their lineup's best hitters, the Braves wondered. Well, the loss of Smoltz, followed in succession by backup catcher Eddie Perez, relievers Rudy Seanez and Greg McMichael, and finally, second baseman Quilvio Veras, answered that question.

"It was not only a test of our organization, but a test of the character in the clubhouse," right fielder Brian Jordan said. "We could have gone in a lot of different ways, but we stuck together."

During the first half, it appeared there were 24 players pulling in one direction and one pitcher striding off on his own. John Rocker created a firestorm of controversy last winter with inflammatory remarks in Sports Illustrated, and there was rampant speculation he wouldn't last the season with the team, much less lead the bullpen with 23 saves.

Yet, seven months after reporters and TV crews swarmed the club's spring training headquarters to see Public Enemy No. 1, Rocker has reasserted himself as one of the league's top closers and any thoughts the team harbored of trading him have vanished.

"Winning shuts everything up," left fielder Reggie Sanders said. "Everything that happened is no longer a factor, as long as you win."

At the start of the season, there was some doubt whether the Braves could continue their domination of the NL East. Galarraga was back, but at age 38 and away from the game for 16 months, how much did he have left? The infield had a new double play combination, there was a new left fielder and two big question marks loomed in the rotation behind the front three of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood.

Losing Smoltz was huge. But, less than 24 hours after being released by those pitching-rich Devil Rays, John Burkett signed with the Braves and partially off-set Smoltz's absence by winning 10 games.

The loss of Veras, who had established himself as one of the league's best leadoff hitters, was equally traumatic.

"I thought when Quilvio went down we'd be in bad shape," second baseman Keith Lockhart said. "It really has taken a lot of the pressure off me to have (Rafael) Furcal do as well as he has."

Furcal, who has made the Grand Canyon-sized leap from Class A ball to the majors look like a stride across a mud puddle, likely will become the first Brave named Rookie of the Year since David Justice in 1990. In addition to playing a solid, often spectacular shortstop, he assumed Veras' leadoff role and posted a better on-base percentage than any other leadoff hitter in the league with more than 350 plate appearances, with the exception of Florida's Luis Castillo.

Still, nothing came easy for the Braves. Millwood, last year's 18-game winner, was this year's dilemma. Andy Ashby came over from the Phillies and was inconsistent. A three-game lead at the All-Star break dwindled away through the dog days and became a half-game deficit on Sept. 1.

"We hit the wall at the end of August," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "We were really scuffling. But, we caught our second wind just in time. If we had played the Mets at the end of August, we would have had our lunch handed to us."

But, as they have shown repeatedly through their remarkable nine-year run, when it matters the most, the Braves come to play. They squashed any thoughts the Mets harbored of winning the East by taking two of three at Turner Field in mid-September, then rubbed the Mets' noses in Shea Stadium's dirt by clinching the division there last week.

The path leading to another championship had a soap opera's twists and turns, but the ending was familiar.

"It's been a successful season and an interesting one with everything that's gone on," Glavine said. "We've been pretty good against good ballclubs and that's encouraging. Some days this team is as good as any we've had, but on other days, I'm not so sure."

Stay tuned.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.


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