ATLANTA — As the Braves packed their bags for the longest road trip of the season, televisions throughout the Turner Field clubhouse were set to a channel replaying the team’s greatest moment in Atlanta.
The 1995 World Series championship.
Hmmm, could that be a prescient bit of programming? Because it’s sure starting to seem like old times around here.
Once a perennial powerhouse, Atlanta hasn’t made it to the postseason since 2005, the last year in its unprecedented run of 14 straight division titles. But when the Braves headed to Los Angeles, the initial stop Thursday on a crucial 11-game trip, they were baseball’s hottest team and holding down first place in the NL East.
“This is what it’s supposed to be like around here,” said Chipper Jones, the last player left from the ‘95 title team. “I got to experience it the first 11 years of my career. Now some of these other guys are finally getting to experience it.”
Indeed, the Braves used to be as much a part of the fall landscape as the changing leaves. Granted, they became as well known for their futility in the postseason (only one World Series title in 14 tries) as they were for always getting there. But a four-season playoff drought has driven home just how impressive that streak was.
This year started out like another disappointment in the making. Atlanta ended April at 9-14, already five games off the pace and reeling from a nine-game losing streak.
Then came the May turnaround.
The Braves went 20-8 and snatched away first place from two-time defending NL champion Philadelphia on the final day of the month. June began with two more wins over the slumping Phillies, completing a sweep and leaving Atlanta with an eight-game winning streak (its longest since 2003), 18 wins in its last 22 games and a 21/2-game lead in the division race.
“They’re good,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “They’re going to be right there at the end.”
The pitching has been solid all season, but a rejuvenated offense led the surge. Give credit to manager Bobby Cox for making three pivotal decisions:
- Martin Prado and heralded rookie Jason Heyward shifted to the top two spots in the batting order. Prado was leading the NL in hitting (.324), while the 20-year-old Heyward was pacing the team in on-base percentage (.412).
- Eric Hinske began playing more. He went into Thursday night’s game against the Dodgers batting .326 with four homers and 22 RBIs in only 86 at-bats.
- Most important, Troy Glaus kept his starting job at first base even after a miserable first month. He responded by leading the NL with 28 RBIs in May.
Not bad for a player who missed most of last season recovering from shoulder surgery and signed a bargain one-year, $1.75 million contract with the Braves.
“I think the key to their team is Glaus,” Manuel said. “If Glaus hits 25 to 30 home runs, that’s 75 to 80 runs for them. That’s going to really set them up. Because with Chipper Jones and (Brian) McCann, that gives them a lot of pop in their lineup.”
Actually, Jones (.240) and McCann (.254) haven’t done much — another reason for the Braves to be hopeful that their impressive play isn’t a fluke. The lineup will look even better if those two sluggers start putting up more familiar numbers.
The pitching staff also has room for improvement. Jair Jurrjens, a 15-game winner last season, has yet to win and is on the disabled list with a strained hamstring.
“If we get J.J. back and pitching the way we’re all used to him pitching, it’s going to be like adding a free agent to a team that’s already in first place,” Jones said. “Things could get better. That’s the scary thing.”
Or, they could get worse.
The Braves are just 12-16 away from Turner Field, which doesn’t bode well for a road trip that includes four games against the second-place Dodgers and ends with three more at first-place Minnesota.
But if Atlanta returns home still in first, their prospects will look a lot more promising. Fifty-two of the final 94 games are at the Ted, where the Braves are an major league-best 19-6.
“This trip is big,” Jones said. “The schedule hasn’t been kind to us to this point from a travel standpoint. But everybody is going to have to go through it at some point during the year. We’re getting ours out of the way in the first few months.”
There’s one other intangible working in the Braves’ favor.
This is the final season for Cox, who’s retiring from a job he’s held since 1990. He’s got plenty of titles on his resume, but the team would love to send him out with one more.
“To win this division and kind of punctuate his run and our run together, that would be cool,” Jones said. “It certainly motivates you to get your tail out there and do what you can to win it for him.”