Francoeur starting over after a humbling season

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. --- Jeff Francoeur graced the cover of Sports Illustrated not long after he got to the majors. The headline dubbed him "The Natural."

He was the hometown kid who made good. Little girls squealed when he came to bat. Little boys wanted to be just like Jeff.

Now, after hearing boos for perhaps the first time in his charmed life, Francoeur is trying to get his once-so-promising career back on track with the Atlanta Braves.

"He's learned the game of baseball will truly humble you, like we've all had to learn," said Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton, the National League MVP in 1991. "It taught him that you have to persevere and deal with some harsh and rough times, and maybe some harsh and rough things being said about you."

Indeed, Francoeur came under increasing criticism last season as his batting average tumbled and his powerful stroke turned feeble. The automatic cheers at Turner Field turned to muffled groans, then morphed into full-scale heckling every time "Frenchy" failed to come through in a clutch situation.

Francoeur's struggles fell right in line with the Braves' downfall. He was a convenient whipping boy for the ills of a franchise that went from dominant -- Atlanta won a record 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005 -- to its worst record (72-90) in 18 seasons.

"It had more impact last year because we weren't doing well," he said. "If you win 95 games, people don't notice it as much."

Francoeur went on a weightlifting binge after the 2007 season, which left him with bulging arms but a weak swing. The result was a .239 average with 11 homers and 71 RBI, absolutely dismal for someone who had 599 at-bats and usually hit right in the middle of the order.

He was even demoted briefly to Double-A Mississippi, in hopes that a less pressurized environment would help him turn things around, but the move only seemed to sour his relationship with the front office and local media.

"It was definitely tough," Francoeur said. "But down the road it's only going to help me. I feel if I can go through what I went through last year, I can go through anything. I know I'm mentally strong."

Francoeur took a different approach this winter, lifting occasionally but spending more time in the batting cage.

He brought his feet closer together and pushed his hands farther back, mimicking the stance that's worked so well for ex-teammate Mark Teixeira.

Francoeur spent much of the winter working out with Chipper Jones, who might just be the best pure hitter in the game. While encouraged by what he saw, Jones is not ready to predict that Francoeur will recapture his 2005 form.

"It's easy to sit in the cage all winter and center balls," Jones said. "But when you get under live fire, that's going to be the real test to see if the adjustments he's made are doing him some good. I'll reserve judgment."


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