ATLANTA - For nearly six months, they have done it with baling wire and mirrors, spare parts and extra heart.
For all the predictions - wacky, whimsical, or stone-cold sober - about this Atlanta Braves team, no one could have seen the dips and detours the team would take on its way to a 13th consecutive division championship.
An offense that took a hit when Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, and Vinny Castilla departed last winter has averaged nearly five runs per game. A pitching staff minus 300-game winner Greg Maddux has produced a 3.70 earned run average, second only to the Cardinals among National League staffs.
And, while there's no reason for anybody to throw a party until the Braves clinch, likely by this weekend, there is cause to rejoice in a team that defied the odds and baseball's prognosticators. This one is special, closer John Smoltz said, better than all the others, with the exception of 1991's worst-to-first club.
"This was not supposed to happen, not with all the losses and all the doom and gloom," he said. "This could have easily turned into a year where everyone said we were due to lose and we did. Now we have a chance to put it off for one more year."
Just three months ago, the Braves were six games under .500 and 6 games out. A team official described them as "road kill." Second baseman Marcus Giles was out for two months with a broken collarbone. Rookie first baseman Adam LaRoche was gone with a separated shoulder.
Manager Bobby Cox drew up a lineup that included a pair of rookies, second baseman Nick Green and left fielder Charles Thomas, and installed 46-year-old Julio Franco as the regular first baseman. But it wasn't until he returned Chipper Jones to third base that the team took off.
In 80 games since losing to then-Marlins pitcher Brad Penny June 23, the Braves are 56-24. They are 43-20 since the All-Star break, when they trailed the Phillies, preseason favorites, by one game.
Braves' magic number