ATLANTA -- For a hitter who had just one at-bat in the majorleagues in the last four years, Julio Franco swung the bat inSaturday's 5-3 loss to the Cubs as well as he did in his prime.
"He looked fast, quick, agile," pitcher Greg Maddux said. "Helooked young. He swung the bat excellent."
Franco smashed a ball to first baseman Fred McGriff in the first,walked in the third, then smoked a line drive that almost took offMcGriff's head in the fifth. He tapped back to the mound in theseventh, then ended the game by striking out against closer Tom Gordon.
"Too bad Fred was in my way," said Franco, who joined the Bravesfrom the Mexican League Friday. "The difference in the big leagues is,most of the time when you hit it, they catch it."
Though Franco reached base just once, he had better at-bats thanmost of the lineup. He showed patience at the plate, drawing the team'sonly walk before the ninth inning, and with the exception of occasionaldays off, he'll probably be the first baseman the rest of the way.
"I felt good and I hit the ball good," Franco said. "I hit theball where I wanted to hit it. It was away and I wanted to go to rightfield."
Franco, whose real age is 40 or 43, take your pick, also showedgood range and soft hands at first base. He made a diving play of BillMueller's hard grounder in the first, and handled three other ballswithout a problem.
"I was really impressed with him," manager Bobby Cox said. "Ididn't know what to expect, but he looked good."
..." Why are the Braves struggling to score runs? Because they're notbeing patient at the plate. In fact, this lineup is among the mostimpatient group of hitters in the major leagues.
Only the Pirates and Marlins in the National League, and theRoyals, Tigers, Blue Jays, and Devil Rays in the American League havefewer walks than the Braves.
The Braves, who have 395 walks, will finish with fewer walks thanin any full season since drawing 432 free passes in 1988.
Simply, walks translate to runs. Last season the Braves had 595walks, averaging 3.7 walks per game, and scored an average of five runsa game. This year, they are averaging 2.9 walks per game, and scoringan average of 4.4 runs per game.
"I'd rather have a guy take three good swings, than work the countand get one swing," hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said. "If you canwalk up to the plate and take a good swing at the first pitch, thenwhack it."
That's a good approach if the lineup was filled with .300 hitters.But a team with offensive problems should see more than an average of3.56 pitches per plate appearance, which is the major league's worstaverage.
Yet, while the Braves aren't being patient, they're not strikingout either. They entered Saturday's game with the league's feweststrikeouts, but while they're putting the ball in play, they're notdelivering clutch hits. The lineup is ranked 13th in the league in RBI,and 10th with a .258 average with runners in scoring position.
...: Although catcher Paul Bako knocked in a run in Saturday's 5-3 lossto the Cubs, it wouldn't be surprising to see Eddie Perez begincatching Maddux. Perez, who missed most of last season and all of thisseason following shoulder surgeries, is the stronger hitter, andanswered questions about his arm strength by throwing out three of sixrunners on a rehab assignment at Class AA Greenville.
"I'm not back to normal, but it's real close," Perez said."Maybe it's me hitting and me catching, but it's not me throwing. Butit's getting better and better."