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Braves back where they belong


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Last year the Braves won the first game of the baseball season. They beat the Phillies on that Sunday night at Citizen’s Bank Park. They were in first place after that win.

But if you don’t count that one single day, the last time the Braves were in sole possession of first place was May 15, 2007.

That’s 1112 days.

That’s a long time for an organization that was used to being in first place for many years. But with Monday’s win over Philadelphia, the Braves got back where they belong.

We all knew in spring training this could be a pretty decent team. The offense, at least on paper, looked better than last year. The rotation looked solid, and the new-look bullpen looked great.

But the losing streak in April made everyone wonder. Some fans were wondering who could be traded before the deadline to get prospects for the future. Some wondered how high of a draft pick the Braves might have next June.

Then May rolled around.

Thank goodness.

This month has been a lot of fun. The Braves were 20-8. The comatose offense woke up, and the pitchers appreciated the support and did their job.

And now, the Braves are in first place.

“Now’s the hard part,” said third baseman Chipper Jones, who homered Monday to get the Braves on the board. “Now we’re the hunted. Today’s win is only good if we do it again tomorrow, cause if we lose tomorrow we’re in second place again.”

But this team seems like it can handle the pressure that comes with being in first place, even though it’s still early. Remember, it could have easily folded when it lost nine straight at the end of April.

“When you play late in the year, and if you’re lucky enough to get to the postseason, we’ll remember that streak,” catcher Brian McCann said. “And it’s only going to make us better.”

“That’s why we preach around here not to get too high or too low,” Jones said. “And there will be more low points during the course of the season. The key will be to limit the length of the downswings a lot better than we did in April.”

That’s a Bobby Cox philosophy right there. He’s always believed the season is not a short sprint, but instead a slow marathon that takes 162 games to play out.

The formula for May has been simple. “Good pitching, timely hitting,” McCann said. “You’ll have a lot of success if you’re getting timely hits and getting great pitching.”

And that’s exactly what we thought the Braves would have when the season started. The talent was there; it just took it a little while to get going.

Speaking of getting going, the lineup has mainly because Martin Prado is at the top spot. He’s been incredible, leading the National League in hits, and doing nothing but hit in the leadoff spot.

“Prado could hit first, second, or third for me,” Cox said. “He’s that type of hitter. Not only having a great year with the bat, but he’s having a great year with the glove. He’s been fantastically polished at second base.”

Prado is setting the tone. He’s making that offense go, and then Jason Heyward, Troy Glaus, and McCann are hitting him and others in.

And that Eric Hinske guy in left field has done pretty well, too.

But the unbelievable thing for me is that here we are on June 1, with the Braves in first place, and 40% of its rotation is still without a victory.

“If you had told me at the end of May that (Kenshin) Kawakami and (Jair) Jurrjens don’t have a win, I would say we’d be in deep, deep doo-doo,” Jones said. “I think we’re just now starting to play really good, unified baseball. I look for it to get better when KK starts getting some W’s, and JJ gets off the DL and gets back to his normal self. I like our team.”

He should. It’s a good one.

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