ATLANTA - Win by the home run, die by the home run?
In the two games preceding Saturday night's game against the Padres, the Braves had lived solely by the long ball. Six home runs, two by Andruw Jones, had accounted for all 13 runs against Los Angeles and San Diego.
That's not a bad thing, manager Bobby Cox said, but he would prefer to see a more balanced attack.
"We don't want to be tagged as a team who can only score by home runs," he said. "We've got to hit singles too."
Despite the long balls, the team's batting average (.237) and its run total remain among the league's worst. However, there are encouraging signs from several hitters, principally Jones, who is among league leaders with 12 home runs, and leads the team with 26 RBI.
But Jones is also among the league's strikeout leaders with 37 in 36 games, which is cause for concern.
"Just imagine if he cut down his strikeouts and a quarter of those were hits," hitting coach Terry Pendleton said. "I get after him about his two-strike swing because he has to put the ball in play."
Jones has developed a pregame routine with Pendleton that he credits with improving his swing. Fifteen minutes before the start of every home game, they head to the batting cage next to the home clubhouse and Pendleton pitches to him.
"We don't joke, we go about our business," Jones said. "It's totally different mentally from batting practice. We don't miss a day."
Said Pendleton: "It's important to him and I don't let him leave on a bad swing."
Jones, who has homered in three of the last five games, has improved his average with runners in scoring position to .310. He has hit in 17 of the last 23 games at a .330 clip, but his average still stands at a mediocre .268.
"He's really coming on," Cox said. "He still swings at a ball occasionally that's not near the plate, but he's improving. I've got him hitting behind Chipper Jones and that says a lot."
TOUGH CALL: Kerry Ligtenberg thought he would be the one to go. Kevin Gryboski figured he'd be sent out. Instead, reliever Tim Spooneybarger, who lockers between them, was sent to Class AAA Richmond on Saturday to make room for pitcher Jason Marquis, who was activated from the disabled list.
"It was a hard thing to do," Cox said. "Spooneybarger is going to be real good, but he's not going to be real good if he sits."
With the emergence of Gryboski, who has a 0.73 ERA in 10 games, and two quality setup men in Mike Remlinger and Darren Holmes working in front of closer John Smoltz, Cox felt there would be few opportunities for Spooneybarger.
"We've got Holmes and Remlinger and Smoltz, and Gryboski has moved way up," Cox said. "It's better for him and us if he goes down and closes and gets ready."
The decision was a surprise because Spooneybarger was among league leaders with 19 games and the league was batting just .235 against him. But he had struggled with his command lately, giving up five walks in his last 5 1/3 innings, and he had been lifted twice in his last four appearances without getting an out.
STILL A RESERVE: Keith Lockhart has started two of the last three games at second base, but Cox says Marcus Giles remains the regular. Cox likes Lockhart's defense, and though his .154 average is reflective of a slow start, the manager says Lockhart has been hitting in tough luck.
"He's been hitting the ball hard and playing great at second," Cox said. "People don't ever give Keith credit. I like to get him in there every once in a while to keep him sharp."
Lockhart's primary job remains late-inning pinch-hitting duty, one of the game's toughest jobs. He led the team with 15 pinch hits last year and ranks among the game's top five active pinch hitters, but he's struggled off the bench this year with just one hit in 22 at-bats.
"As much as I've talked to other guys like Lenny Harris and John Vander Wal about pinch hitting, there's no formula," Lockhart said. "I wish I could figure it out. It's a hard job to do."
SMALL ADJUSTMENT: First baseman Julio Franco figured out why he's off to a slow start at the plate by listening to Cox and Pendleton talking to catcher Javy Lopez during early batting practice Friday. They stressed keeping his head still, a seemingly simple adjustment, and Franco realized he was making the same mistake.
"You see the ball better when you keep your head steady," he said. "But when you're in a slump, nothing is simple. Most of it is mental; a lot of things go through your head."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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