Originally created 07/09/02

Braves in familiar place, despite lack of offense



ATLANTA - This is not high ground. This is not sacred soil. This is where the Atlanta Braves usually reside at the All-Star break.

True, the cushion isn't usually so comfortable, but six times now since 1995 the Braves have entered the three-day holiday with the National League's best record. Three times they have ended the first half with the major league's best record, including this year's 56-32 mark.

A harbinger of a glorious October?

Not necessarily. The last time the Braves took baseball's best record into the break, they lost the 1997 NLCS to the eventual World Series champion Florida Marlins. The previous year they also had the major's best record at the midway point and lost the World Series to the New York Yankees.

This is one of those occasions when comparisons are inevitable and snap judgments irresistible.

Are the Braves as good as their 1996-97 counterparts? In several ways, they are. But the most glaring deficiency is the offense. This year's collection of hitters doesn't resemble the lineups that averaged 4.8 and 4.9 runs per game in 1996-97. The flip side is, the offense hasn't had to produce big numbers because the pitching staff has compiled an astonishing 2.99 ERA, the first staff since the '91 Los Angeles Dodgers to post a sub-3.00 ERA at the break.

Lost in the shadow of a remarkable first half is this: With 74 games remaining, the team's three most productive hitters - Gary Sheffield, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones - have not hit a hot streak together yet.

In the last two weeks, it wasn't hard to keep up with the Joneses. The pair have not driven in a run this month. Chipper has not knocked in a run since June 23; Andruw has not hit a home run since June 11, has three RBI since June 19, and is batting .115 in July.

Andruw Jones, acknowledging he's fallen into bad habits at the plate because he's tired, has reverted to his April flailing. After striking out 30 times in the first month, he whiffed just 20 times in May and June, but has gone down on strikes 13 times in 26 at-bats this month.

Chipper Jones has lost 26 points off his batting average in the last 14 days. He hasn't hit a home run since June 23, hasn't had more than one hit in the last 12 games, and is batting .111 this month.

And yet the Braves are 11-3 since Chipper Jones last went deep.

"With Sheff hurt as much as he was early, and Andruw and I going through our usual midsummer slumps, it's very surprising we are where we are," he said. "Obviously, the pitching staff deserves a lot of credit, while the other guys like Matt Franco, Keith Lockhart, and Rafael Furcal have been carrying us."

Two months ago the Braves were concerned about their lack of production at first base and second base. But since then the Francos, Matt and Julio, have nearly matched the league average for first basemen, and Lockhart's hot bat has silenced cries for a new second baseman. What it means is that while the offense patiently waits for the middle of the lineup to get hot, there's little chance the front office will make any significant moves. The team sees no upside to trading for Cleveland first baseman Jim Thome, who in any case would simply be a three-month rental, and is reluctant to alter the chemistry on a club that has jelled into a close-knit group that's also produced the major league's best record since May 15.

There aren't many stars inhabiting the Braves' galaxy, and maybe that's a good thing. This team is tight because everyone is contributing, from the leadoff hitter to the 25th man, rather than having a core group of hitters responsible for most of the offense, and three starters shouldering the lion's share of the innings.

Just one hitter (Chipper Jones) is batting .300, but five hitters have 30 RBI or more. Only one starter has double-digit wins, but five other pitchers have five wins or more. The bullpen, a collection of journeymen and castoffs, leads major league bullpens with a 2.28 ERA, and closer John Smoltz, who has converted 31 of 34 saves, needs just nine more to set a franchise record.

The Braves have won big, they've won small, and they've won often. But no hitter is having a career year, and no starter, with the exception of Tom Glavine, is on pace to win 20 games. It's been a collective effort from a team that was in fourth place with a 19-21 record on May 14. Since then, its won 37 of 48 games, and now leads the second-place Expos by 9 1/2 games.

And Chipper Jones thinks the best is yet to come.

"It's only a matter of time before Andruw get a big hit and I snap out of it," he said. "Things are going to turn around for us, and when they do, watch out."

The question is, can a team with a .224-hitting second baseman and platooning first basemen play deep into October? Can the Francos and Lockhart produce big hits against the likes of Arizona's Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson or will the offense fade away like autumn colors?

After watching his club make a shambles of the division race, general manager John Schuerholz is likely to stand pat and keep his fingers crossed that the team's first-half success translates into a World Series winner.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.