Originally created 08/06/02

Ho hum: Braves roll toward another division title



ATLANTA -- Just a few days into August, the Atlanta Braves have already turned their attention to October.

Barring a monumental collapse, the Braves are assured of another division title. For those who've lost count, this will be No. 11 in a streak that began when a different Bush was in the White House.

Atlanta, which was off Monday, buried the NL East with a brilliant run that bloomed in the waning days of spring and had yet to wilt in the stifling heat of summer.

Since May 15, the Braves have won 54 of 71 games, a .761 clip that would translate into 123 victories over a full season.

"That's ridiculous," Chipper Jones said.

Atlanta has the best record in baseball (73-38) and holds an 18-game lead over Florida, Montreal and the New York Mets. The Braves haven't been this far ahead in the division, uh, race since ending the 1998 season with an 18-game cushion over the Mets.

"Every night, it's a different hero," said pitcher Jason Marquis, who scored a key run in the latest victory as a pinch runner. "We come to the stadium every day expecting to win."

Of course, division titles don't mean much in these parts. They're a mere formality on the way to the postseason, where Atlanta's success rate is much lower.

Since launching their amazing run of regular-season success in 1991 - no other major pro franchise has won more than nine division titles in a row - the Braves have managed just one World Series championship.

Along the way, they've lost once in the opening round of the playoffs, four times in the NL championship series and four times in the World Series.

This time, the Braves feel something magical is at work.

The lineup hardly looks imposing with journeymen such as Julio Franco and Keith Lockhart, but everyone is contributing. The starting pitching isn't quite as deep as it once was, but the bullpen has been nearly unhittable with starter-turned-closer John Smoltz, setup man extraordinaire Mike Remlinger, and retreads Chris Hammond and Darren Holmes.

"Does that necessarily translate into a World Series this year?" Jones said. "No, but I like our chances."

The victory Sunday night was vintage Braves.

Damian Moss, a rookie from Australia who languished in the minors for eight years, held the St. Louis Cardinals to one hit and an unearned run in eight innings.

The offense finally woke up in the eighth. Backup catcher Henry Blanco, filling in for the injured Javy Lopez, doubled off the left-field wall. Marquis ran for Blanco and scored the tying run with an aggressive slide, tumbling over backward but managing to get a foot past the catcher's shinguard.

In the ninth, Gary Sheffield fell behind 0-2 in the count, then hit the next pitch into the left-field stands for a 2-1 victory. The split-finger fastball was down and away, but Sheffield managed to knock it out virtually one-handed.

"I'll take that pitch nine out of 10 times," loser Dave Veres said.

Moss hasn't been in the majors that long, but he's been a part of the organization for most of its dominating decade.

"I think this is the best team we've ever had," he said in his laid-back Aussie accent. "Just the feeling of camaraderie. Everybody is happy to be here. They want to win. They're on the same page. We're doing the little things, then the big dogs put the nail in the coffin."

Matt Franco, the unofficial leader of the "Bench Dogs," displayed that esprit de corps in the clubhouse late Sunday night. Coming from the shower, he spotted third-string catcher Steve Torrealba, who caught the final inning.

"Way to go, Steve!" Franco said. "Way to bounce around back there."

Once again, the Braves are led by their pitching, which has defied this home run-crazy era with a 2.90 ERA - nearly a run better than any other team. Greg Maddux (11-3, NL-leading 2.45 ERA) and Tom Glavine (14-6, 2.79) are approaching middle age but haven't changed a bit. Kevin Millwood (10-6, 3.44) has bounced back from a couple of mediocre seasons. Moss (7-4, 3.03) has become nearly untouchable, giving up just four hits in his last three starts.

The starting pitchers rarely go more than six innings, taking advantage of baseball's deepest bullpen. Smoltz, in his first season as the closer, already has tied the franchise record with 39 saves. Remlinger is 7-0 with a 1.34 ERA. Hammond and Holmes, who weren't even in the majors last season, also have ERAs in the 1s.

The lineup doesn't look quite as imposing, although Sheffield (.294, 19 homers, 65 RBIs) has bounced back from an early-season slump and Jones is hitting with more power than he has all season.

Can the Braves count on hitters such as Lockhart (batting just .213) and Julio Franco (already in his 40s) when they get to the playoffs? Will they be able to produce enough runs against a team such as Arizona, which can pitch Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson on back-to-back nights?

Clearly, the Braves think so.

"It's nice to see everybody contributing," Maddux said. "It hasn't always been Chipper and Sheffield. That's what makes it fun."