Once-overlooked Hanson could key a return to the playoffs for Atlanta

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In the spring of 2004, Riverside Community College coach Dennis Rogers attended a game at Redlands East Valley High in Redlands, Calif., and a 17-year-old Hanson was on the mound. In the stands that day there were no other recruiters, no scouts from major-league teams.

"You could say Tommy was under the radar," Rogers said with a laugh. "He really didn't do anything that would gain anyone's attention. His numbers were not eye-popping, his stuff wasn't that electric."

Hanson's fastball at the time topped out in the mid-80s, his secondary pitches were "solid but not dynamic." Hanson -- now 6-foot-6, 210 pounds -- already had the big frame, and Rogers liked that. But what he really liked, what really drew him to this stoic SoCal kid, was that in every big moment, Hanson got better.

"When things got tough," Rogers said, "his ability to stay in the moment was incredible.

"And that's what's going to separate him in the pros. That's what's going to make him successful on the Atlanta Braves for many years to come."

That, as well as a Smoltzian slider, a 95 mph fastball that explodes in on helpless right-handed hitters, a 12-to-6 curve, and a changeup that Hanson has fine-tuned in his two months at Triple-A Gwinnett, where he struck out 90 hitters over 66 1/3 innings and posted a 1.49 ERA. "All my pitches feel great," Hanson said. "I'm still working on my changeup right now, but I feel better than I ever have."

I spoke to Hanson on Tuesday, a day before he got news that he was being called up to Atlanta for a start Saturday at Turner Field. "The first month I'd feel great one game, all right the next," he said. "But the last three or four starts I've felt great all the way through."

In the NL East, the first-place Phillies look like they're about to take control of the division, but if Hanson is as good as advertised, the Braves have a chance to be competitive in what should be a wide-open wild-card race. (And remember, the Braves haven't played postseason baseball since the 2005 campaign, the last of Atlanta's 14 straight division titles.)

"He's the real deal," a scout noted this spring. "The John Smoltz comparisons are appropriate. He's been dominant at every level."

Hanson dominated at Gwinnett, dominated the Arizona Fall League (5-0, 0.63 ERA, 49 Ks in 29 innings), dominated last season at Double-A Mississippi, where he tossed a no-hitter with 14 strikeouts June 25.

"The only concern I have is him trying to be too fine with his location," the scout said. "He's got enough pitches that he doesn't have to be perfect. When he figures that out, he's going to be a top starter in the league."

To make room for the 22-year-old right-hander, the Braves released Tom Glavine and they also sent Kris Medlen -- Hanson's longtime roommate and friend, a right-hander who also dominated at Gwinnett this year and was called up to Atlanta last month -- to the bullpen.

"When Kris came home that first day he was up, we hung out and he couldn't shut up," Hanson said. "He just talked for about an hour and we just sat there and listened. But I was happy for him. Kris and I have been together at every level, so it was a little weird when he was called up before me. But I think it's really helped me. For me to hear what to expect, it's a big help for me. The biggest thing he's told me is that when you get up there, you're not like, 'Wow, these guys are so good.' Once you're on that stage, you don't feel intimidated."

Hanson and Medlen are already enjoying the perks of the big-league life. At the beginning of the year, they lived without a TV -- "We'd have to walk over to a bar if there was a game we wanted to catch," Hanson said -- before Medlen's girlfriend gave them one of hers, a "small, old-school, projection TV, not that nice," according to Hanson. Atlanta catcher Brian McCann has offered the two rookies one of his spare 60-inch plasmas. "It's going to be sweet having a decent TV, finally," Hanson said. "It'll be nice watching SportsCenter on HD."

There should be plenty of highlights out of Atlanta to watch now that the Tommy Hanson era has finally begun.