By Paul Newberry
ATLANTA ? Two weeks into the season, Roberto Hernandez and Ray King wondered if they were stuck in a time warp.
They were supposed to be pitching for the Atlanta Braves. Instead, it felt a lot like those 100-loss teams they had just left.
"I knew if we lost the division for the first time (since 1990), they were going to point the finger at us," said Hernandez, sitting next to King in the Braves clubhouse.
Not to worry. After winning only four of their first 12 games, the Braves have hardly lost since. An astonishing run has put Atlanta (31-13) in a familiar place ? first place ? with the best record in baseball.
No, Roberto, you're not in Kansas City anymore.
Yes, Ray, you're definitely with the Braves, not the Brewers.
"There was too much talent in this clubhouse to worry how we started," King said. "Nobody panicked. All the guys said, ?Hey, it's going to get better."'
Indeed, it got better. Much better.
The Braves, who were off Monday, are threatening to run away with their 12th straight division title. A four-game sweep of the Padres over the weekend gave Atlanta 27 victories in its last 32 games ? an .844 pace that would translate into 137 victories over a full season.
Imagine if the Braves still had Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood.
After last season, Glavine signed with the New York Mets, while Millwood was traded to Philadelphia in a cost-cutting deal. The loss of those two pitching stalwarts was supposed to signal a changing of the guard in the NL East, but the division has already taken on a familiar look.
The Braves are on top. Everyone else is chasing.
Millwood has pitched a no-hitter, but the Phillies still trail the Braves by six games. Glavine has pitched well for the Mets, but his new team is already 12 games behind his old team.
"They're burying us in the beginning," said John Smoltz, Atlanta's closing machine. "Now, they're trying to figure out, ?Why are they doing this?' Then we'll get to the end of the year and they'll say, ?Big deal."'
The Braves have only themselves to blame for turning division championships into a monotonous activity, though their winning M.O. has a few new wrinkles.
Outside of Smoltz, who leads the majors with 18 saves, the pitching staff no longer dominates. In fact, seven NL teams have a better ERA than Atlanta's 4.07. The rotation includes struggling Greg Maddux, rookie Horacio Ramirez and Shane Reynolds, who was released by Houston in spring training.
But the pitching dropoff has been more than offset by a surge of offense. The Braves are leading the NL in hitting (.284) and runs (5.6 per game), and rank second in home runs (58) and on-base percentage (.351). The lineup includes four .300 hitters, led by Gary Sheffield.
at a major league-leading .361.
Where did all this offense come from? After all, newcomer Robert Fick is the only new position player acquired by the Braves, who averaged just 4.4 runs in 2002.
Much of the credit goes to Sheffield and Rafael Furcal, who have bounced back from disappointing seasons.
A year ago, Sheffield was hampered by injuries and his power numbers sagged. Furcal struck out 114 times ? far too often for a leadoff hitter ? and managed only 27 stolen bases in 42 attempts.
Healthy again, Sheffield is showing just how dangerous a power hitter who rarely strikes out can be. He leads the NL with a .653 slugging percentage, is tied for second with 38 runs and ranks third with 38 RBIs. Combined with Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, he gives the Braves a potent 1-2-3 punch through the middle of the order.
Furcal is playing the leadoff role to perfection: getting on base (hitting .337 with a .394 on-base percentage), striking out less (once every 8.9 at-bats, compared with 5.6 last year) and creating all sorts of havoc on the basepaths. He has an NL-leading six triples and has yet to be thrown out in nine stolen base attempts.
It doesn't hurt to have a bunch of guys in the last year of their contracts, either. Sheffield falls into that category. So do Lopez and Vinny Castilla, both hitting well after miserable 2002 seasons.
Then there's a couple of guys who've been there for all 11 division titles ? Smoltz and manager Bobby Cox.
Smoltz saved an NL-record 55 games in his first season as the closer. He's on pace to do even better in Year 2 with 18 saves in his first 19 attempts. The last 72 times he's pitched, the Braves have won.
"Obviously, those numbers don't lie," said Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers. "When he comes into a game, they win ? and it's basically automatic."
And let's give a shout-out to Cox, who never gets enough credit for the Braves' success. His strategic moves may get criticized from time to time, but no one runs a better clubhouse.
"Everyone on this team would run through a wall for him," King said.
Even if the Braves win another division title, they'll face a familiar burden in the postseason. This team has managed only one World Series championship since its historic streak began in 1991.
San Francisco manager Felipe Alou seemed to raise that point after his team lost two of three to the Braves a couple of weekends ago.
"You're not going to come in here and blow the Braves away," he said. "They know how to win regular-season games."