ATLANTA - It's a lineup that's missing a piece. A big piece.
During the last seven years of their 10-year championship run, the Atlanta Braves have never been without a big bopper in the middle of their lineup.
Needing a presence, a slugger who struck fear into a pitcher's heart, the Braves traded for Fred McGriff in 1993. Casting about for a suitable replacement after McGriff's sale to his hometown Tampa Bay Devil Rays after the 1997 season, the Braves hired Andres Galarraga.
Now they have ... Brian Jordan?
"The norm in baseball is a big bopper in the middle of the lineup," said Jordan, who has hit cleanup six times in the first 26 games this season. "But if you've got a guy who drives in 100 runs, you don't care if he's a big bopper or not. The key is hitting in situations and driving in runs."
Besides Jordan, manager Bobby Cox has also used B.J. Surhoff and Chipper Jones as cleanup hitters, with mixed results. Jordan, who drove in 115 runs two years ago when Galarraga missed the season, is hitting .217 in the cleanup spot this season and has knocked in four runs.
Jones is batting .280 as the cleanup hitter with a pair of home runs and 11 RBI, while Surhoff is hitting a disappointing .158 with one home run and five RBI at cleanup.
The Braves didn't plan to be without a bonafide slugger this season. They went after Alex Rodriguez last winter and chased Gary Sheffield this spring. Give the team credit for recognizing its deficiencies.
But, by failing to acquire either hitter, the Braves are sorely lacking in the power department and figure to finish the season with their fewest home runs in a full season since hitting 138 in 1992. So, the question begs, how important is having a slugger hitting cleanup?
"It does (make a difference) when you're not hitting," hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said. "Everybody would love to have a guy who can hit 30 or 40 homers, and hit .300, but if you don't, you don't. I would like A-Rod or Sheffield in our lineup; that would change the look of our offense, but we don't have them. You make do with what you have."
What the Braves have is a lineup that finally started hitting during the three-city, 10-game excursion through three time zones. Most of the bats switched on in Houston, but Surhoff (.175) continues to struggle, and Jordan - while making hard outs - has knocked in only 11 runs in 92 at-bats.
Meanwhile, Galarraga is hitting .284 and has banged out five home runs and knocked in 17 runs in Texas, McGriff has two home runs and nine RBI in Tampa Bay, and Ryan Klesko has three home runs and 11 RBI in San Diego.
"It makes no difference if you have a slugger hitting cleanup," Cox said. "If hitters can hit, you'll score runs. Singles win games too."
The Braves like to point out their regular lineup has a collective career batting average of .282. In other words, while they're missing a big bopper, they feel they have eight professional hitters who can produce enough hits to win.
But in April, the Braves hit .237 and averaged 3.9 runs per game. Not surprisingly, they won 12 games and lost 14. The only hitter who batted .300 during the first month was Chipper Jones. Fourteen of their 27 home runs were produced by two hitters, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones.
While the Braves have struggled to score runs, there is a silver lining to their woeful start. In 860 at-bats, they have struck out just 150 times, the second-fewest in the National League.
"We don't have many guys who have big holes," Rettenmund said. "Last year, I think we had a few guys in the middle of the lineup who could be pitched to. With this lineup, we should have three or four innings when we have a guy up with an opportunity to drive in a run or two. The home runs are nice, but we have to put guys on base."
That will be the key to the Braves' season. Can they consistently put runners on base and produce enough big hits to win a 10th consecutive division title?
Or, will the offense struggle, forcing the club to acknowledge a failed experiment and deal for a slugger before the July 31 trading deadline?
"You'd rather have a big bat in the middle of the lineup, if that's possible," assistant general manager Frank Wren said. "But you can't have everything, so you have to define what's the most important thing on the club. Is it pitching or do you get rid of some pitching to add a bat? It's a balancing act.
"It's that big bat that can produce three runs with one swing that's not there. Yes, you'd like to have it, but is it essential to win? No. The Yankees haven't had a big bopper for four years. They've won with a lineup of professional hitters."
During the first three weeks of the season, Rettenmund wasn't dismayed by the lack of hitting. Rather, he looked at the number of runners the team put on base and smiled. True, very few of the runners scored, but he could see an offense struggling to find itself, knowing that eventually it would.
Sure enough, in the past seven games against the Astros and Diamondbacks, the Braves averaged seven runs per game. It's enough to make a grizzled hitting coach's heart burst with pride.
"If we put the swings on the ball, we should put enough balls in play that we should score enough runs," Rettenmund said.
With or without a slugger at cleanup.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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