Braves pack bags for Puerto Rico

By George Henry

MIAMI ? As he packed his bag Sunday for an unprecedented trip home, Javy Lopez felt like a little kid. The Atlanta Braves' catcher never thought he would play a regular-season game in Puerto Rico.

"It's something I've never done before, so for me it's very special," Lopez said. "I just hope we play like the Braves are capable of playing and give them a good show."

Lopez, born and raised on the southern side of the island in Ponce, planned to spend Monday with family and friends before the Braves begin a three-game series against Montreal Tuesday night in San Juan.

The Expos, who opened their 10-game Puerto Rican homestand with three straight wins over the New York Mets, are playing 22 games in San Juan this year.

"For guys like Javy, this is huge," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "It means the world."

Cox hasn't visited Puerto Rico since 1987, his second season as Braves general manager. He and longtime scout Paul Snyder went to Ponce to watch Lopez, a highly sought catching prospect, and outfielder Melvin Nieves.

"Seems like ages ago," said Cox, smiling and shaking his head. "It makes you feel pretty old, that's for sure."

The 61-year-old Cox didn't feel so old after the Braves beat the Florida Marlins 7-1 on Sunday. Atlanta ace Greg Maddux ended the worst start of his career by combining with Roberto Hernandez and closer John Smoltz on a four-hitter that averted the Marlins' first sweep of Atlanta since Sept. 24-26, 1996.

"Man, we needed that," Cox said. "Our guys never doubted themselves, but it always feels good to win."

Hernandez, a former closer for Kansas City, Tampa Bay and the Chicago White Sox, pitched a scoreless seventh to lower his ERA from more than five runs a game to 4.26. The 38-year-old right-hander was pleased to hold Florida to one hit and no walks.

Hernandez, in his first year with Atlanta, is getting accustomed to his role as Smoltz's primary setup man. The native of Santurce, Puerto Rico didn't want to return his homeland after another poor outing.

"Just get strike one and hopefully get strike two as quickly as possible," Hernandez said. "I'm going to make them put it in play. I've been walking guys more than I have in the past, but it was mostly a mechanical thing."

Because he moved to the United States before attending high school in New Hampshire and college in South Carolina, Hernandez didn't expect to receive a greeting like Lopez. But Hernandez indicated his Puerto Rican-born wife, Ivonne, had a fun week planned.