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Braves wounded, but ready to battle it out

Special to

August 31

The Braves don't have to watch SportsCenter to know where the Mets have come from -- and how good the Mets have become.

"We are fully aware that we had a (six-game) lead and that the Mets have caught up with us," says Atlanta's Greg Maddux. "Of course we watch them. But we can't worry about them until we play them. We've never had to think about the wild card before, but that's fine. What's important is righting ourselves."

Tom Glavine
Tom Glavine has won 10 of his last 11 decisions and has 18 victories to lead the NL.

In an eight-game homestand that ended Thursday, the Braves lost six games and fell out of first place in the NL East to the Mets.

"We just haven't been playing very well," says Maddux. "We have to get back to playing good baseball, everyone included."

Maddux, who had pitched brilliantly with no luck since the All-Star break as evidenced by having the third worst run support (4.08) of any starter in the NL, allowed five runs in the first inning Monday, his worst first inning since 1990. And with a loss to the Reds on Thursday, the idle Mets moved past Atlanta into the top spot.

"We have two series (Sept. 18-20 in Atlanta and Sept. 26-28 in New York) with them, and they'll be huge," says manager Bobby Cox. "But we have a lot we have to worry about before then. If we right ourselves, we'll be fine."

As the Giants, Diamondbacks and Dodgers now peer towards Atlanta, wondering if perhaps the wild card could come out of the West, there are signs that perhaps the Braves are over their blahs.

"To be honest, I can't ever remember us playing like this at this time of year," says Cox. "But a lot of teams go through this kind of sluggishness before Labor Day and September. Maybe this is our turn. I see some signs that we're going to be OK."

Several things have happened on this homestand. The Braves made eight errors in three games last weekend against the Cardinals. The bullpen also gave up 13 runs in 11 2/3 innings. Brian Jordan then further bruised his battered body saving Maddux further grief in that rough first inning. Kevin Millwood then proceeded to break his nose when he fouled a ball off of it while in the batting cage.

Most of all, the Braves stopped hitting. "We're getting hits, not runs," says hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. "We're not having the at-bats we had earlier in the year, when we'd get six hits and score five runs. But that will turn around."

The Braves miss Quilvio Veras and his tough at-bats at the front of the order. But now that Rafael Furcal can ignite the top of the order with Andruw Jones, their most consistent player, batting right behind him, the Braves now need the middle of their order to produce again.

"We've gotten away from doing what we do best," says Andres Galarraga, who, without mentioning it, watched his team have a five-pitch, three-up, three-down inning while trailing by three runs Monday and again while down by two runs Tuesday. Galarraga, who has been playing with a bad hand, started to take it into his own hands, crushing two doubles Tuesday, then belting a home run Wednesday against the Reds as he's hitting .320 in August.

"We just haven't had guys going in the middle," says Rettenmund. "Believe it or not, Chipper (Jones) hasn't been hot all season. That tells you how great he is, but we also know that he's capable of getting very hot this final month."

The same goes for Javy Lopez. Jordan, who needs offseason surgery for his frayed rotator cuff, thinks he can overcome his pain, and B.J. Surhoff is feeling his way through the NL.

"This may be the best team we've had here in terms of our lineup," says Walt Weiss. "A month ago, that's what people were talking about. Recently, we've heard people wondering if we're getting old. I don't think so. We've got a lot left here."

Glavine has now won 18 games, has been the stopper and is in the thick of the race for his third Cy Young Award. Maddux, despite Monday's freak inning, has also been superb. "His luck has to turn around," says Mazzone. "You can't pitch that well and not get runs forever."

Millwood was also just returning to his 1999 power persona when he got his nose out of joint. "This has been a learning experience for him," says John Smoltz, who has become a kind of big brother to the youngest member of the rotation. "He's been through a process of experiencing some things that will make him better."

"Kevin got away from what makes him so good," says Mazzone. "He's a pure power pitcher. He has to pitch North-South, which Maddux and Glavine can't do. He kept trying to pitch East-West, and that's not his game. He told me 'I'm trying to better myself,' and I told him to be what he is, which is a power, high fastball pitcher. And he's doing it. He could be better than he's ever been down the stretch, and that's saying a lot."

Last year Millwood blew hitters away with gas up and out of the strike zone, but he went through three months of getting his fastball down too far. He's learned, however, and has a 3.32 ERA in August.

Andy Ashby had a quick start with the Braves followed by a slide, but Tuesday night's outing, which was shortened because of a blister, seemed to restore him to his power-sinker nature.

"I got too fancy," says Ashby, who after coming to the Braves got away from the drop-and-drive style he had adopted in Philadelphia and got back up high over the rubber to regain his sinker. In one recent start, Mazzone asked him why he threw a backdoor slider, which incidentally got hammered for a home run.

"He doesn't even throw one," says Mazzone. "He was just trying to think too much. But Maddux and Glavine keep it simple. That's what Andy has to do." Tuesday night, his stuff was dominating.

If the Braves are going to beat the Mets, during the regular season or playoffs, they have to at least match New York's deep, superb bullpen. "I know we gave up some runs in this stretch," says reliever Mike Remlinger. "But there were a lot of bloopers, a lot of weird things mixed in. I think things are coming together, and John (Rocker) is throwing very well."

Remlinger has been good all season in whatever role he's been asked to fill. Terry Mulholland, who throws harder the more he works, is throwing 93 mph and has the best breaking ball he's had in years. Kerry Ligtenberg matches up well against right-handed batters and is coming along. And, after going a month without a save, Rocker has now been scored upon in just five of his last 23 appearances. And while Rocker still has 45 walks in 40 innings, his 57 strikeouts define his overpowering stuff.

Mazzone has worked hour after hour with Rocker to get him back to a more relaxed delivery.

"The work ethic is there," says Mazzone. "He works as hard as anyone. He's intelligent, and he wants to be good. He's going to be all right."

Cox agrees: "People remember what he did against the Mets and again in the playoffs," he says, "but John wasn't perfect all season. He was great at the end. He can be that again this year."

The Mets are very good. The Braves respect the Giants as much as the Mets. So the road to the playoffs -- not to mention the World Series -- is more difficult this year than in any during their current 10-year run.

But don't send them an AARP card, not yet anyway.

"When we play like we can and should play," says Maddux, "we are still a pretty good team."

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