Originally created 08/06/02

Bobby's Boys



ATLANTA - His starting second baseman was handed a minor league contract last winter and told to take it or leave it. Two of his best relievers didn't pitch in the majors last year.

One of his first basemen spent last season in the minors, and the other claims to be 41, but could easily be 46. His backup center fielder has been with seven teams.

His backup catcher can't hit a lick, yet has won five games with his bat.

His team was in fourth place for 19 straight days, but now owns an 18-game lead.

If all this sounds improbable, if not downright impossible, consider Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox. His collection of castoffs and journeymen have pushed the Braves to the head of the class in the National League.

"It's really a 25-man team," Cox said. "Everybody has won games for us with either a hit or a play."

For instance, Darren Bragg, raced to the center field wall to make a game-saving catch last week. And Henry Blanco, the catcher with the .226 career average, triggered Sunday night's comeback with an eighth-inning double.

And who would have expected Matt Franco, who spent last season with Norfolk, the Mets' Class AAA affiliate, to hit .363? Or Darren Holmes and Chris Hammond to own two of the best ERAs among NL relievers?

"That's part of what makes this a remarkable story," pitcher Tom Glavine said. "We have guys who were retired, guys who were in the minors. I guarantee you, these guys weren't given a second thought by people who saw the transactions last winter. That's what makes this team different. We have a lot of lunch pail kind of guys here."

After spotting their NL East rivals a head start in April, the Braves have turned the race into a lopsided affair. As they prepare to open a three-game series against the defending world champion Arizona Diamondbacks tonight at Bank One Ballpark, they have won six in a row, 15 of 18, and 54 of 71 since May 15.

And how have they done it? Why, by relying on the bench and the bullpen, of course.

"No matter what I do the rest of my life, I will always remember this summer," said Franco, who has batted .450 with runners in scoring position. "I'm glad the Mets changed their minds and gave up on me too quickly because I haven't been happier in my life."

No one could have imagined that Franco would hit .386 as a starter, or that Bragg, released by the Mets at the end of camp, would join the team a month into the season and fit into the clubhouse like a little brother.

Who could have predicted that Holmes would rebound from last year's back surgery to post a 1.42 ERA at age 36 or that Hammond would take a 2 1/2 year detour to Wedowee, Ala., before arriving here?

"I've never seen anything like this before," said Holmes, a 10-year veteran. "There's a lot of heart in this clubhouse, especially from the guys who are not household names."

And how about Keith Lockhart, the 37-year-old second baseman who remains a Cox favorite, even as the front office has made him feel less welcome than a vacuum cleaner salesman. All he's done is play defense like a Gold Glover, and contribute 21 RBI, mostly from the eighth spot in the lineup.

"It seems every time (Cox) puts a guy in, he gets a couple of hits," Lockhart said. "No one can figure out how he knows when to play someone. It's not a performance-based thing. But what he's doing keeps everybody kind of hungry and fresh. You want everybody to have the attitude that they're a little bit disappointed when they're not in the lineup."

Everyone from Holmes to Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon says Cox deserves the credit. It is not by accident that the Braves have become a close-knit team and display a blue-collar work ethic. They are a reflection of Cox.

"It starts with the manager," Holmes said. "Bobby makes you feel like you're part of the team, no matter who you are. In the spring, he made me feel like I would have the same opportunity to make the team as John Smoltz. When a manager is loyal to you, and you go out and play your heart out for him, good things are going to happen."

Glavine is certainly qualified to pass judgment on this team. He has been here since the beginning, has played on five pennant-winning clubs, and won a world championship. But this team is different, he says, closer than any club he's played on, more the Waltons than the Osbornes.

"It's fun for the bench guys to go out and participate and it's fun for us to watch them do it," he said. "It brings a feeling to the team that maybe hasn't been here before. It's fun to have guys who didn't expect to be here, and are thrilled to be helping us out."

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.