ATLANTA - General Manager John Schuerholz strolled around the batting cage at Turner Field much like he does prior to every Atlanta Braves home game.
One moment he's telling a joke to third baseman Chipper Jones, the next second he's chatting with Major League representative and former big leaguer Bob Watson, who was in town for Tuesday's game with the Milwaukee Brewers.
For a man whose team had just posted its first sub-500 month (12-15) since 1993, Schuerholz looked remarkably calm.
Across the country, and even in Atlanta itself, radio talk shows and columnists from San Diego to New York have already written the Braves' epitaph, convinced that the team's run of nine straight Division championships is about to come to an end.
Granted, there are some legitimate concerns.
Atlanta hit .237 in April, its lowest batting average since 1993, when the Braves hit .229 while the staff's 4.29 earned run average was their highest for a full month of April since 1990.
Yet, as Schuerholz pointed out, despite all the team's troubles, the fact remains that Atlanta entered play Wednesday in second place, four games behind Philadelphia in the East Division standings.
"I know a lot of people are worried about what's going on in April, and I understand that," Schuerholz said. "It's interesting, but it's not terribly meaningful. You've got to remember, we've only played 27 games, that's meaningless in terms of the long-term picture."
The Braves are showing signs of breaking out of their funk.
Offensively, Atlanta improved significantly over its last seven games (7.0 runs per game) of its recent road trip, scoring 49 runs after totaling just 28 in its prior 14 contests (2 rpg).
The pitching numbers have also improved as evidenced by the starters' 2.91 earned run average over the last 18 games.
"We've hit well at times and we've pitched well at times," Schuerholz said. "The thing we've got to do is get all of our components working together at once. April has always been the getting-ready month. I think we'll be fine."
But there are aspects that need to improve.
Second-year shortstop and leadoff man Rafael Furcal entered play Wednesday hitting a mere .245 with an on-base percentage of just .286, thanks largely to 21 strikeouts in 106 at-bats.
The stolen bases are also down. After swiping 40 bases a season ago, Furcal has attempted just six in four weeks and has been caught three times.
Finding a fifth starter wouldn't hurt either.
After a solid spring training, Odalis Perez has been bombed his last two starts, but will get another chance Saturday when Bobby Cox sends him to the mound against St. Louis. The Braves also need a healthy John Smoltz.
Smoltz, who is trying to come back from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, says he's feeling better every day and Tuesday threw off the mound for the first time in weeks.
"I'm still right there in that four- to six-week period. It's been four weeks but it feels like four months," Smoltz said. "I'll just try to keep progressing as my elbow allows."
Fortunately, Tom Glavine (4-1, 3.49) and Greg Maddux (2-2, 2.48) have been their usual stellar selves and John Burkett (3.18 ERA) has been effective despite a record of 1-3.
Kevin Millwood, meanwhile, is still trying to regain the form that enabled him to combine for 35 wins in 1998 and 1999.
Take Tuesday's start against the Brewers.
Millwood was impressive early, retiring six of the first eight batters he faced before Milwaukee struck for four runs, three scoring on home runs by Raul Casanova and former Brave Tyler Houston.
If Millwood can't straighten himself out Atlanta could really be in trouble, although the Braves can at least take comfort in the fact that nobody else in the National League is exactly setting a torrid pace either. Especially in the East where Montreal, Florida and New York are also still trying to reach the .500 mark.
"If we can reel off five or seven wins in a row, we'll be in pretty good shape," Schuerholz said. "We want to have a winning record, let me make that clear. But what is more important is getting ourself in a mode of playing like we're capable of playing. That's what is more important right now. Baseball is a long season. I'm more concerned we have the record you're talking about in September. I believe that we will."
Time will tell if Schuerholz is right. If not, the times will certainly have changed.
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