ATLANTA (AP) - This was supposed to be the year the Atlanta Braves finally finished back in the pack in the NL East.
Gary Sheffield, Greg Maddux and Javy Lopez all left to play elsewhere, part of some budget tightening by corporate owner Time Warner Inc. That came a
year after longtime ace Tom Glavine signed with the rival New York Mets. Journeymen Jaret Wright and John Thomson filled out the rotation, and three
new players took spots in the everyday lineup. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Phillies appeared loaded, moving into new Citizens Bank Park with a $93
million payroll that included a new All-Star closer, a revamped bullpen and a promising starting rotation. And the Florida Marlins retained most of
the roster that upset the New York Yankees in the World Series. Winning that 13th straight division title seemed a little tougher. Yet the Braves
never lost faith, even after a sluggish first three months left them 4[ games behind the Phillies and the Marlins.
"I've heard that Atlanta's been slow starters for the last I don't know how many years," Thomson said. "I've always heard they're a second-half team."
That's exactly what happened. Under steady leadership from manager Bobby Cox, the Braves went 20-6 in July to take a commanding lead in the division.
Their torrid pace was carried by some unlikely heroes. Sure, J.D. Drew stayed healthy and continued to have one of the best seasons of his career, and
Chipper Jones snapped out of one of the worst slumps ever. John Smoltz did his part, too, reaching at least 30 saves for the third straight season.
But during that month, it was the five starters who led the way. Wright went 4-0, joining Russ Ortiz (5-0) and Mike Hampton (5-0) with unbeaten
records during July, part of a 25-5 run by the rotation. Until a loss Tuesday night in San Diego, Wright ran his winning streak to nine straight
"It's just been, for me, whatever happens when I pitch, happens," Wright said. "Then you go out there in four or five more days and do it again. As
you get older, you realize nothing in the past really has any bearing on what you're supposed to do in the next four or five days."
Hampton's turnaround is even more amazing. After a loss to the Marlins on June 29, he was 2-8 and growing increasingly frustrated with every poor
He worked out his problems just in time to join Wright and Ortiz for that stellar run.
"I think everyone is trying to one-up the next guy, especially in the starting rotation," Hampton said. "I think confidence is starting to build and
we're trying to keep the streak rolling."
All that was done without budding star Horacio Ramirez, a crafty lefty who has missed nearly three months with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder.
Paul Byrd, who signed with the Braves before last season before an elbow injury kept him off the mound for all of 2003, returned to pitch effectively
as the No. 5 starter. When Ramirez does come back, he won't need to be rushed back into the rotation, a luxury the Braves have with the 24-year-old.
Atlanta's resurgence might finally bring attention to Cox, who has only one manager of the year award during the run of division titles started in
1991. Even Glavine lobbied for Cox during a trip back to Turner Field with the Mets.
"It's the same old formula that's always made them successful," Glavine said. "I'm not surprised by it. Any time Bobby's managing over there, he's
going to find a way to get the team to play well and be in contention.
"Maybe this is the year that he'll get the recognition for how good of a manager he really is."
Pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who has been with Cox for the past 14 years, also deserves a large portion of the credit. He has put together a pitching
staff with very few stars that has the best ERA in the NL heading into the weekend. If it holds through the end of the season, it'll be the 12th time
in the past 13 seasons the Braves have been either first or second in that category.
"Everything's consistent, a constant, daily basis," Mazzone said of his work with this staff. "Nothing changes from beginning to end, regardless of
the result. It's not something different that we're doing or something less or something more. There's no secret."
That probably won't make the Phillies or the Marlins feel much better.