Once upon a time there was baseball in October without the Atlanta Braves ... a time when the Braves weren't collecting division titles the way a traveling salesman racks up frequent-flier miles, a time when Atlanta was just another scuffling mid-market franchise. These days, however, trying to remember when the Braves were not in the postseason is like imagining New Year's Eve before Dick Clark. "Sure, I know that the Braves were bad once, but boy, it's been a long, long time," says rookie first baseman Adam LaRoche, who was a fifth-grader at Salem Lutheran School in Spring, Texas, in 1990, the last full season in which Atlanta didn't finish first in its division. "You walk into the clubhouse, put on your uniform, and you just feel that expectation of winning that this team has been about for so long."
This being the start of September, it should come as no shock that the Braves are atop the National League East and in a familiar mode: cruise control. After beating the San Francisco Giants on Monday afternoon at Turner Field for their eighth win in nine games, the Braves had a nine-game lead in their quest for an unprecedented 13th straight division title. But while first-place finishes have become as common in Atlanta as Ted Turner and Coca-Cola, the Braves' dominance this year is, in fact, a big surprise--even to the players themselves.
"I just shake my head that we're in first and have the lead we have," says closer John Smoltz, the only player to have been on all 12 division winners (though he sat out the 2000 season recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow). "If anyone here is telling you they're not surprised we are where we are, you might want to give him a lie-detector test. Like a lot of people, I got caught up with all that talk predicting our demise."
Indeed, this was the year the Braves' Golden Age was supposed to end. This was, after all, the first time in 18 years that Atlanta would be without any of its longtime trio of aces--Greg Maddux (signed as a free agent last winter by the Chicago Cubs after 11 years in Atlanta), Tom Glavine (who left for the New York Mets following the 2002 season, his 16th with the Braves) and Smoltz (a 12-year starter who became the closer in the second half of 2001)--in the rotation. The Braves would also have to cope with the off-season free-agent departures of three All-Stars: rightfielder Gary Sheffield, catcher Javy Lopez and third baseman Vinny Castilla, who drove in 35% of their runs and mashed 104 of their franchise-record 235 homers in 2003. Many baseball cognoscenti predicted that Atlanta would finish in the middle of the NL East pack, behind the young, world-champion Florida Marlins and one of last winter's biggest upgraders, the Philadelphia Phillies.
"Given the losses we had over the winter and a cut in payroll, the challenge to build a championship-caliber team was more daunting than in past years," says general manager John Schuerholz, who was ordered in the off-season by owner Time Warner (also SI's parent company) to slash last season's $95 million payroll by $15 million. "But that didn't diminish our confidence. There were a lot of people who wrote us off, and that bothered me. After 12 years of this you'd think someone would say, 'You know, those guys know what they're doing.'"
Now in his 14th season, Schuerholz is the longest-tenured general manager in the four major pro sports. From 1991, his first season, through 2003 the Braves won 1,245 regular-season games, more than any other major league team. (The Yankees were second, with 1,170.) If Schuerholz is the Da Vinci of G.M.'s, then this year's team may turn out to be his Mona Lisa. Two of his most heavily criticized moves from the last two years--trading righthander Kevin Millwood to Philadelphia for catcher Johnny Estrada in 2002, and acquiring oft-injured rightfielder J.D. Drew and utilityman Eli Marrero from the St. Louis Cardinals for righthander Jason Marquis and lefty reliever Ray King--have paid off big this summer. Through Monday, Drew was hitting .307, had set career highs in home runs (29) and RBIs (81), and for the first time in six years hadn't spent any time on the disabled list. Estrada, the Braves' lone All-Star representative in Houston in July, was batting .332 (sixth best in the NL) with eight homers and 66 RBIs.
Atlanta's minimal All-Star representation was a reflection of the fact that, for the first three months of the season, the Braves were no better than the doomsayers had predicted. Atlanta carried a 33-38 record into a three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles on June 25--a weekend that many players consider the season's turning point. Before the first game, manager Bobby Cox, typically a stoic leader (unless he's boasting about his NASCAR fantasy team), addressed his club with an unusually emotional speech. His message: Play together, back each other up, and everything will be O.K.
"More than ever," says Smoltz, "with the younger guys we have, Bobby has felt compelled to express confidence in the team, and his Psych 101 approach has been effective." The Braves won two of three against Baltimore--including a comeback from a 7-0 deficit in the finale--then went 41-15, the best record in the majors during that span. Says righthanded starter Paul Byrd, "[Before the Baltimore series] it was just an uneasy clubhouse. We had a lot of frustration. Bobby cleaned up our clubhouse with about five minutes of talking. It's like that old commercial: 'When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.'"
The Braves' hot August--they had won 19 of 27 games through Monday--coincided with the dramatic turnaround of third baseman Chipper Jones. The switch-hitter began August with a .223 average and 14 home runs, but his two-run shot in Friday's 5-3 win over the Giants was his ninth in 14 games and 11th for the month. Even so, the Atlanta offense (fifth in the league in runs, with 645) is nowhere near the juggernaut it was last season; this year's Braves were on pace to hit 59 fewer homers and score 103 fewer runs than they did last season.
Just like old times, it is the top of the rotation that has propelled Atlanta. The new Big Three, righthanders Russ Ortiz (13-7, 3.86 ERA after Sunday's loss to the Giants) and Jaret Wright (13-6, 3.20) and lefthander Mike Hampton (10-9, 4.90), combined for 19 straight wins from July 1 to Aug. 16, a stretch of excellence unmatched even by Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, who had six Cy Youngs for Atlanta among them. "Other teams may not fear us like they feared those great rotations of the past, but we feel we can be just as good," says Ortiz.
Wright has been the team's most unlikely success story. In 18 starts from May 27 through last weekend he went 11-1 with a 2.79 ERA. On Friday night he allowed three runs in seven innings to collect his career-high 13th win. "He's the best pitcher in the National League right now," says Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
It's been a Lazarus-like resurrection for Wright, who seven years ago won three postseason games for the Cleveland Indians as a 21-year-old rookie and became the second-youngest Game 7 starter in World Series history. The cocksure son of former major leaguer Clyde Wright seemed destined for greatness, but a series of right shoulder ailments quickly derailed his career: After a 12-win sophomore season Wright landed on the disabled list twice in '99, then had two shoulder surgeries in the next two years. He was 7-9 with a 7.27 ERA from 2000 to 2002, when he was released by the Indians at season's end.
A year ago, struggling as a reliever with the San Diego Padres (8.37 ERA in 47 1/3 innings), Wright wondered if he'd even be pitching in the majors in 2004. Despite Wright's ugly numbers, Schuerholz, on the recommendation of four scouts who were impressed with the velocity and life on the righthander's pitches, put in a claim on Wright when the Padres placed him on waivers in August. When San Diego manager Bruce Bochy called Wright in his Houston hotel room to tell him that he'd been picked up by the Braves (the only team to claim him), Wright thought Bochy had dialed a wrong number. "I was shocked that someone wanted me," he says. "But there was nothing that was going to change for me in San Diego. I was going to finish the year struggling in the bullpen and come back in the spring and have to fight for a job. Everything changed when I went to Atlanta."
Wright has thrived under the tutelage of Mazzone, a guru renowned for revitalizing floundering careers. "When I first saw him [last year], he was just a hard, hard thrower who was all over the place," says Mazzone, whose long list of successful reclamation projects includes Hampton, Chris Hammond, John Burkett, Mike Remlinger and Rudy Seanez. "What Jaret's learned here is that 90-percent effort on pitches with better location is better than throwing the ball as hard as you can with less location. Throwing with less effort, his delivery has become much smoother and more consistent."
A pitcher who once relied on overpowering hitters with a blazing fastball, Wright now unleashes his mid-90s heater only rarely. Mazzone also helped Wright develop a two-seam sinker that has become a primary weapon. After Wright faced four batters and retired the side without allowing a run in the first inning of his first start as a Brave in April, he found Mazzone in the dugout and asked, "Is that all there is to it?"
Since coming to Atlanta, Wright has also increased weight training on his shoulders to improve his stamina. He acknowledges that his hefty rookie-year workload--between his minor and major league starts he logged 216 innings, including the postseason--might have contributed to his injury problems. At week's end his 152 innings were his most since 1998.
So, can the unlikely trio of Ortiz-Wright-Hampton keep the Braves rolling? While it may seem premature to start sizing up potential playoff opponents ("I like our chances against the Cardinals," one Braves player said last weekend, "but the Cubs scare me to death"), it would take a historic collapse at this point for Atlanta to miss the postseason. No league or division leader has ever blown a lead of eight or more games after Sept. 1.
Having proved their doubters wrong thus far, the Braves will soon set about trying to get another monkey off their backs: Their 12 straight postseason appearances have produced but one world championship, and that was nine years ago. "Given the lower expectations and how far this team has come, this is already one of the most special years in our run," says Smoltz. "But that doesn't mean our standard is different. We're still here to win the World Series."
Cox gave an unusually emotional speech. HIS MESSAGE: PLAY TOGETHER, BACK EACH OTHER UP, and everything will be O.K.