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Bartolo Colon young at heart, good as ever in first Braves victory

ATLANTA -- Maybe in a way, Bartolo Colon was destined to pitch for the Atlanta Braves, even if took him two decades to make his home debut for the franchise.

In his SunTrust Park debut, with his ninth big league club, Colon throttled San Diego over seven efficient innings as the Braves beat the Padres 9-2. Atlanta has won its first three games at SunTrust and four straight overall. Finally, the Braves are having as much fun as Colon always has.

“It’s refreshing to watch,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I love being around the guy. He’s just such an engaging, personable guy. And he does his job. He’s a pro, he prepares. You don’t play this long in the major leagues without knowing what you’re doing.”

And Colon has indeed being doing it for a long time. In fact, dig this: Twenty years and 12 days ago, on April 4, 1997, the Braves played their first game at Turner Field in downtown Atlanta, a 5-4 win over the Cubs.

According to one of those "on this day" sites, Bill Clinton was president, Puff Daddy topped the charts, and "Grosse Pointe Blank" was one of the biggest movies in the land.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Anaheim Angels hosted the Cleveland Indians. On the hill for Cleveland? A 23-year-old Dominican righty named Bartolo Colon, making his big league debut.

Colon didn’t get the win that day -- thanks to Paul Shuey's blown save -- but he’s won plenty since, logging career victory No. 234 on Sunday. That total has him within striking distance of a couple of lofty targets: Juan Marichal holds the record for wins by a Dominican-born pitcher with 243. Meanwhile, Dennis Martinez has the mark for all Latino-born hurlers with 245.

With a few more outings like Sunday’s, Colon will pass them this year, which is pretty amazing for a guy five weeks away from his 44th birthday. Colon was signed to a hefty, one-year, $12.5 million deal over the winter as the Braves sought a veteran stopgap for the rotation.

The hope was that Colon -- along with Saturday’s winner, R.A. Dickey, and Monday’s starter, Jaime Garcia -- would stabilize the staff as the club tries to compete while buying time for a stacked minor league system to do its thing.

“He did that against us a lot, what he did today,” Braves slugger Freddie Freeman said. “It’s nice having him on our side.”

Colon allowed just one run and one hit -- both on a Ryan Schimpf homer -- and has sandwiched two terrific outings around a clunker at Miami.

But the fact that he returned to his unflappable ways on Sunday was no surprise to anyone.

Said Freeman, “He got knocked out in his last start, and when he looked at me, he was like, 'Next time, papi, next time.' He definitely was right on about that. He went out there and did his job. That’s what we signed those guys for, was to give us a chance to win.”

That playful demeanor, the one that endeared him to fans in New York the past few years, has already won over the hearts of Atlanta fans, who cheer for him vigorously whenever his name is announced, as if he has played for the club for a decade.

“The second I put on the shirt, I think the fans started giving us support,” Colon said. “Even before I put on the shirt, when I signed with the Braves, I started feeling the support from the fans. On my part, all I want to do is keep doing the best I can, keep pitching well, so we can get them to come out and support us for the rest of the season.”

The Braves got more than a veteran innings-eater when they signed Colon, and that’s likely why they spent so much on a 43-year-old starter.

They really landed a cult figure of sorts, which isn’t a bad thing to have for a team looking to build good will in its new suburban environs. Improbable as it seems, a 40-something, 5-foot-11, 280-pound hurler has injected youthful energy into the clubhouse.

“He’s very positive,” Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte said. “He knows he’s still got a lot to give. He’s always having fun. I like hanging out with him.”

Of course, the success of the Colon signing will depend less on his infectious personality and more on his ability to replicate the performance he had on Sunday. Or something close to it -- Colon’s game score (76) was the 18th-best of his 503 career starts, so that’s an awfully high bar.

“He was real efficient,” Snitker said. “He probably could have went back out. But when you look at the big picture, we’ve got six months left. He kind of got us to where we wanted him to go.”

Snitker snickered before making an observation about Colon’s personality that has to be the polar opposite of a skipper: “There is one guy that’s not going to die of a heart attack from stress, I know that. He’s fun. He’s probably experienced everything and more than all the rest of us put together in this clubhouse. Nothing bothers him.”

You have to wonder if all that positivity is the key to Colon’s longevity. He shrugs off the question. Who knows about such things? He just likes to pitch. It’s his happy place, and maybe that’s why he has such a calming influence on everybody else.

“I’ve always tried to pitch relaxed and be in a good place when it’s my turn,” Colon said. ”Like I tell everybody, the day it’s my turn to pitch is the happiest day of the week for me.”