ATLANTA -- It's not like the Braves don't have this pennant racestuff down to a science.
Jog through the first half, sprint following the All-Star break. They figure it's worked during the last nine completed seasons, itwill work again.
A team that historically kicks it into gear during the second halfwill have ample opportunity to take charge of the NL East, playing 21of its first 24 games against sub-.500 teams.
The Braves, who open the second half tonight at Turner Fieldagainst Cal Ripken and the Orioles, won't meet a .500 team for thefirst time until they play the Cardinals in a three-game set in St.Louis July 31-Aug. 2.
There's more good news (sort of). After playing 46 of their first87 games on the road, the Braves will spend most of the next two monthsat home. In the past, that's been a decided advantage, but they arejust 22-19 at home this year, and .500 (13-13) against sub-.500 teamsat home.
"I think in the second half you'll see more consistent baseballfrom the Atlanta Braves," right fielder Brian Jordan said. "We'restill finding ourselves."
The Braves may have to find another leadoff hitter. Second basemanQuilvio Veras will resume his leadoff duties following Rafael Furcal'sseason-ending surgery, but he's missed significant time during the lastsix weeks. He's been hampered by a variety of injuries, and has playedin just 69 of the team's 87 games, which leaves the club in theunenviable position of casting about for a leadoff man if Veras goesdown again.
Veras' fragility is just one of a laundry list of worries for theBraves. The lineup badly needs a slugger to protect Chipper Jones,which is why Ken Caminiti will be given a look between now and the July31 trading deadline. But if they not convinced Caminiti is the answerto their power needs, general manager John Schuerholz will talk to theA's about first baseman Jason Giambi and the Royals about Jermaine Dye.
The Braves have taken a long look at Reds' outfielder/firstbaseman Dmitri Young, and while he's described as a professionalhitter, they don't feel he's a difference-maker in their lineup likeGiambi or Dye.
Furcal's dislocated shoulder has also given the Braves anotherproblem: Trade for a veteran shortstop or go with rookie Mark DeRosa, asolid backup with little major league experience? The team seemsinclined to give DeRosa a shot, while keeping their options open tomake a deal for a slugger or a shortstop, or both, before the deadline.
Odalis Perez and Jason Marquis are the first two names other teamsask for when the Braves talk trade, but they are told the two youngpitchers are off-limits, though that stance may change if ahighly-regarded slugger like Giambi or Dye is made available. Also, theBraves will not trade Class A Myrtle Beach shortstop Wilson Betemit,who is regarded as Furcal's successor at shortstop, moving Furcal tosecond base in two years.
The Braves recognize that the pitching depth in their minor leagueorganization will attract many suitors and they are dealing from aposition of strength. Several of their top pitching prospects likeleft-hander Damian Moss, right-hander Christian Parra, a 17-game winnerat Class A Myrtle Beach last year, and right-hander L.Y. Yankosky, areavailable. Also, second baseman Marcus Giles, who has postedoutstanding numbers at every minor league stop, and first baseman A.J.Zapp, a former first-round pick, are available.
The Braves would love to insert Giambi into the middle of theirlineup, but if the A's climb back into the AL wild-card race, OaklandGM Billy Beane will have a tough time justifying trading the reigningAL MVP. If the A's fall out of the race, a package of prospects mayentice Beane to part with the left-handed-hitting slugger.
If not Giambi, then Dye, the former Brave who blossomed into one ofthe game's top run producers following his trade to Kansas City inMarch 1997.
Just 19 shopping days until the deadline.
FURCAL UPDATE: Furcal returned to Atlanta on Wednesday to begin rehabilitation after season-ending shoulder surgery.
Furcal, the NL rookie of the year in 2000, underwent surgery in Birmingham, Ala., on Tuesday. Dr. James Andrews repaired the player's dislocated left shoulder.
"He will begin immediate limited therapy," said Braves spokesman Jim Schultz.
Furcal will need about six months to recover. The Braves expect him to be ready for spring training next season.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Reach Bill Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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