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Are Braves losing adaptability?


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

They all still reside in Atlanta. The Cy Young Award winners, the All-Star third baseman, the nutty reliever. It is essentially the same crew who helped the Braves dominate the National League throughout the 1990s. And perhaps that is part of the problem.

Atlanta fell 5 1/2 games behind Philadelphia last week, the team's biggest deficit in the National League East in seven years.

The Braves are not hitting and their pitching is not dominating. They have been below .500 for six weeks and have shown no signs of turning the corner.

A common perception is that the Braves stayed on top of their division for a decade mainly because of their pitching. That is not entirely accurate. Though Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz gave Atlanta a base of strength, it showed great skill in being able to change and adapt.

Sid Bream gave way to Fred McGriff who gave way to Andres Galarraga at first base. Marquis Grissom gave way to Kenny Lofton who gave way to Andruw Jones in centerfield. The Braves stayed a step ahead of the pack by not being afraid to make major personnel changes.

For some reason, that trend did not continue last winter. Galarraga was let go and the Braves tried replacing him with Rico Brogna. Brian Jordan has been plagued with injuries, but the Braves elected not to replace him because they could not move his contract.

Now the calls are coming for Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz to make an in-season move to revitalize the lineup. Schuerholz is not taking the bait.

"If we used the current stats as criteria, we'd have to trade the entire roster," he said.

The one thing working in Atlanta's favor is that the Mets were also guilty of non-activity in the off-season. They flirted with Alex Rodriguez, they talked about Gary Sheffield, but they eventually did little of consequence. Unless you count losing Mike Hampton to the Rockies.

The NL East remains imminently winnable and perhaps that is what the Braves are counting on. They plan to get Smoltz back soon from injury rehab and hope that veterans like B.J. Surhoff, Quilvio Veras and Javy Lopez begin showing some signs of life at the plate.

"There will be a time this season when they will be as good offensively as they are bad right now," Schuerholz said. "That will happen. I just don't know when. Preferably soon."

POOR TIMING: Jerry Narron has been considered one of the top managers-in-waiting for several years, but he has stepped into an awful situation in Texas. There is nothing he can do to upgrade the pitching staff, so the club likely will continue losing. And that means impatient owner Tom Hicks likely will go out looking for a big-name manager in the off-season.

STAT OF THE WEEK: They have been the best in their league during the past decade, so showdowns between Maddux and Tony Gwynn should be moments to savor. Actually, they have been terribly one-sided. Gwynn got two more hits off Maddux last week, giving him a .433 career average against the four-time Cy Young Award winner. In 90 at-bats, Maddux has never struck out Gwynn.

THE FILL-IN: David Eckstein, a former walk-on at the University of Florida, has won the hearts of fans and management in Anaheim. Claimed on waivers from Boston, he was supposed to be a fill-in at second base in Triple A. When Angels second baseman Adam Kennedy broke a finger, Eckstein filled in. He was so impressive, the club made him the starting shortstop when Kennedy returned.

"Heart and brains are tools, too, and this guy is off the charts there," manager Mike Scioscia said.

WELCOME TO EARTH: Deion Sanders got three hits in his first three at-bats in his return to the majors. After that, he got three hits in his next 24 at-bats.

BACK ON FORM: The Cardinals may have lost one phenom when they sent Rick Ankiel to the minors, but they have regained another. Matt Morris, one of the most promising pitchers in the National League before major surgery two years ago, is back on top of his game. Morris has had six straight starts of at least seven innings without allowing more than two earned runs. "He's unbelievable," Pirates rightfielder Derek Bell said. "From what I've seen, if he keeps his head focused, he's going to win 20 games and he's going to win the ERA title. If not this year, then next year."

JUST A THOUGHT: It has been pointed out that while Lou Piniella remains in Seattle, other managers have not fared so well with former Seattle stars. Ken Griffey went to Cincinnati and Jack McKeon was fired a year later. Randy Johnson went to Arizona and Buck Showalter lost his job. Alex Rodriguez was in Texas for barely a month before Johnny Oates resigned.

LAST WORD: Fearful of fan retaliation after Chuck Knoblauch was bombarded with debris in Minnesota, the Yankees beefed up security last week when the Twins came to town. The series went off without a hitch. A sample sign in leftfield: "Don't Worry ... You're Safe Here. This is New York!"

- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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