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Braves savor another division title

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ATLANTA (AP) _ As it turned out, No. 13 wasn't unlucky at all for the Atlanta Braves.

Never mind the salary purge, the gloomy predictions, the mediocre first half of the season.

The Braves did what they always do _ win the division.

Atlanta clinched its 13th straight division title on Friday night, extending one of the most amazing streaks in sports. This NL East crown was especially satisfying, considering what the Braves went through the past year.

``The law of averages apparently doesn't apply to the Atlanta Braves,'' pitcher Paul Byrd said.

If there was ever going to be a year for The Streak to end, this seemed to be it.

A mandate to cut payroll after last season meant the Braves couldn't re-sign pitcher Greg Maddux or sluggers Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez and Vinny Castilla.

Most prognosticators expected Atlanta to finish no better than third in the NL East, considering they were in the same division with the defending World Series champion Florida Marlins and a Philadelphia Phillies team that made several major acquisitions and was moving into a new ballpark.

The first three months of the season didn't do much to change the outlook. The Braves dropped as many as six games below .500 and headed into July mired in fourth place.

At that point, however, the turnaround already was in progress. Manager Bobby Cox lambasted his team for its mediocre play before a series against Baltimore in late June. Two days later, the Braves trailed 7-0 after six innings but rallied for an improbable 8-7 win.

``Bobby doesn't say a lot,'' Byrd said, ``but when he does, he's like E.F. Hutton. People listen. When he got on us a little bit, that's all we needed to hear.''

The Braves went 40-14 through July and August, while the Marlins and Phillies both wilted. By the time September rolled around, another division title was a formality.

``I'm not surprised where we are,'' Byrd said. ``I am surprised by the other teams. I never expected Philadelphia to be sitting around .500. I thought the Marlins would be there at the end.''

Instead, Atlanta's two major rivals were both 79-74 before Saturday's play _ 10 1/2 games behind the Braves.

John Smoltz is the only player remaining from the 1991 team, which got The Streak started. But the guys running the show _ Cox and general manager John Schuerholz _ have been there all along.

Schuerholz puts the team together, Cox makes do with whatever players he is given.

``They both work pretty good together. Real good,'' Philadelphia manager Larry Bowa said. ``And the players they get rid of, it seems the timing is always right.''

When the Braves dumped pitcher Kevin Millwood in a cost-cutting move _ to the Phillies, no less _ they settled for minor league catcher Johnny Estrada in return.

A horribly one-sided trade, right? Wrong. Millwood is only 23-18 in his two seasons with Philadelphia; Estrada made the All-Star team and is batting over .300 in his first year as a starter.

During the last offseason, Schuerholz knew he had to bolster the offense. So he took a chance on J.D. Drew, even though the talented outfielder had been on the disabled list every year of his career.

That changed in Atlanta. Drew has made it through the season without any major ailments, finally putting up the sort of numbers that had long been expected _ .312 with 31 homers and 91 RBIs after Friday's 8-7 victory over the Marlins that clinched the division.

Now comes the tough part: winning it all.

The last 12 division championships have produced only one World Series victory, way back in 1995. As soon as the Braves finished spraying the champagne for No. 13, they could begin looking ahead to the playoffs.

There are some troubling issues. Smoltz, the closer, has struggled the past couple of weeks and must be watched closely, given his extensive history of elbow problems. Mike Hampton, the only left-hander in the rotation, will try to finish out the season with torn cartilage in his left knee.

Still, no matter what happens in the playoffs, this has been a season to savor.

``It's hard to do, just getting there,'' Bowa said. ``You've got to take your hat off to them.''
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