By Paul Newberry
The Associated Press
ATLANTA - Two weeks into the season, Roberto Hernandez and Ray King wondered if they were stuck in a time warp.
They were supposed to be pitching for the Atlanta Braves. Instead, it felt a lot like those 100-loss teams they had just left.
"I knew if we lost the division for the first time (since 1990), they were going to point the finger at us," said Hernandez, sitting next to King in the Braves' clubhouse.
Not to worry. After winning only four of their first 12 games, the Braves have hardly lost since. An astonishing run has put Atlanta (31-13) in a familiar place - first place - with the best record in baseball.
No, Roberto, you're not in Kansas City anymore.
Yes, Ray, you're definitely with the Braves, not the Brewers.
"There was too much talent in this clubhouse to worry how we started," King said. "Nobody panicked. All the guys said, 'Hey, it's going to get better.' "
Indeed, it got better. Much better.
The Braves, who were off Monday, are threatening to run away with their 12th straight division title. A four-game sweep of the Padres over the weekend gave Atlanta 27 victories in its last 32 games - an .844 pace that would translate into 137 victories over a full season.
Imagine if the Braves still had Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood.
After last season, Glavine signed with the New York Mets, while Millwood was traded to Philadelphia in a cost-cutting deal. The loss of those two pitching stalwarts was supposed to signal a big change in the NL East, but the division has already taken on a familiar look.
The Braves are on top. Everyone else is chasing.
Millwood has pitched a no-hitter, but the Phillies still trail the Braves by six games. Glavine has pitched well for the Mets, but his new team is already 12 games behind his old team. "They're burying us in the beginning," said John Smoltz, Atlanta's closing machine. "Now, they're trying to figure out, 'Why are they doing this?' Then we'll get to the end of the year and they'll say, 'Big deal.' "
The Braves have only themselves to blame for turning division championships into a monotonous activity, though their winning M.O. has a few new wrinkles.
Besides Smoltz, who leads the majors with 18 saves, the pitching staff no longer dominates. In fact, seven NL teams have a better ERA than Atlanta's 4.07. The rotation includes struggling Greg Maddux, rookie Horacio Ramirez and Shane Reynolds, who was released by Houston in spring training.
But the pitching dropoff has been more than offset by a surge of offense. The Braves lead the NL in hitting (.284) and runs (5.6 a game), and rank second in home runs (58) and on-base percentage (.351). The lineup includes four .300 hitters, led by Gary Sheffield at a major league-leading .361.
Where did all this offense come from? After all, newcomer Robert Fick is the only new position player acquired by the Braves, who averaged just 4.4 runs in 2002.
Much of the credit goes to Sheffield and Rafael Furcal, who have bounced back from disappointing seasons.
A year ago, Sheffield was hampered by injuries and his power numbers sagged. Furcal struck out 114 times - far too often for a leadoff hitter - and managed only 27 stolen bases in 42 attempts.
Healthy, Sheffield is showing the importance of a power hitter who rarely strikes out.
Braves' revolving door
Left-hander Tom Glavine, free agent, Mets (5-3, 3.41 ERA this season, third in NL in wins)
Right-hander Kevin Millwood, traded to Phillies for catcher Johnny Estrada (6-1, 2.87 ERA, threw a no-hitter last month, leads NL in wins)
Left-hander Damian Moss, traded to Giants for righthander Russ Ortiz (5-2, 2.44 ERA, fourth in NL in ERA)
Reliever Chris Hammond, free agent, Yankees (1-0, 3.38 ERA, 16 IP)
Reliever Kerry Ligtenberg, free agent, Orioles (0-0, 3.00, 18 IP)
Reliever Tim Spooneybarger, traded to Marlins via a three-team deal for Mike Hampton (1-1, 4.05 EPA, 26.2 IP)
Right-hander Russ Ortiz, trade from Giants (6-2, 3.18 ERA, second in NL in wins, fourth in NL with 65 IP)
Left-hander Mike Hampton, trade from Rockies via Marlins (2-1, 3.25 ERA, spent three weeks on DL)
First-baseman Robert Fick, signed as free agent (.308, 4 HR, 18 RBI)
Right-hander Shane Reynolds, picked up off waivers from Astros (3-1, 4.99 ERA, 39.2 IP)
Reliever Roberto Hernandez, signed as free agent (3-0, 3.22 ERA, leads NL with 11 holds)
Reliever Ray King, trade from Brewers for IF Wes Helms and P John Foster (2-0, 3.18 ERA, 17 IP)
Who's still there?
Left fielder Chipper Jones (.296, 7 HR, 29 RBI, 10th in NL with 28 BB)
Right fielder Gary Sheffield (.361, 10 HR, 38 RBI, leads NL in BA and SLG, second in R and OBP)
Center fielder Andruw Jones (.287, 10 HR, 40 RBI, second in NL in RBI)
Right-hander Greg Maddux (3-5, 4.85 ERA, third in NL in losses)
Closer John Smoltz (18 S, 1.08 ERA, 29 SO in 25 IP, leads NL in saves)
Worst to First
A look at the Braves' climb from cellar-dweller to 11 consecutive division titles:
|2002 || 101|| 59||.631 || -|| Lost to S.F. 3-2 in Div. Series|
|2001 || 88|| 74||.543 ||-|| Lost to Ariz. 4-1 in NLCS|
|2000 || 95 ||67||.586|| -|| Lost to StL 3-0 in Div. Series|
|1999 || 103|| 59||.636|| -|| Lost to N.Y.Y. 4-0 in W.S.|
|1998 || 106|| 56||.654|| -|| Lost to S.D. 4-2 in NLCS|
|1997 || 101|| 61||.623|| -|| Lost to Fla. 4-2 in NLCS|
|1996 || 96|| 66||.593|| -|| Lost to N.Y.Y. 4-2 in W.S.|
|1995 || 90|| 54|| .625||-|| Beat Clev. 4-2 in W.S.|
|1994 || 68 ||46 ||.596||6||No playoffs, work stoppage|
|1993 || 104 ||58||.642|| -|| Lost to Phil. 4-2 in NLCS|
|1992 || 98 ||64||.605|| -|| Lost to Tor. 4-2 in W.S.|
|1991 || 94 ||68||.580|| -|| Lost 4-3 to Minn. in W.S.|
|1990 || 65 ||97||.401|| 26||--|
|1989 || 63 ||97||.394|| 28||--|
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