Braves Now Bashers, Too

Monday, May 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) — The Arms of Atlanta have passed the torch to the Bashing Braves.

Since their playoff run began in 1991, Atlanta has collected six Cy Young awards and never been out of the top three in balloting for the NL's top pitcher. From Maddux to Millwood, from Glavine to Smoltz, from Wohlers to Rocker, some amazing arms have found a home in Atlanta.

But now it's the hitters who are carrying baseball's best team. In a sign of these run-happy times, people in these parts are actually talking about something other than 20-win seasons and sub-3.00 ERAs.

``I thought this offense would break a lot of records here in Atlanta,'' said Chipper Jones, a one-man offense much of last season who has plenty of help now. ``There's .300 hitters up and down the lineup. There's 30 homers up and down the lineup. There's 100 RBIs everywhere. We've got guys who can steal 30 or 40 bases.''

Indeed, it's hard to find a weakness in a lineup that begins with Quilvio Veras (.324, 11 steals) and Andruw Jones (.308, 12 homers, 22 RBIs), continues on through Chipper Jones (.300, 10, 31), Andres Galarraga (.343, 11, 36) and Brian Jordan (.330, 9, 25), and doesn't let up near the bottom with Javy Lopez (.275, 4, 19) and Rafael Furcal (.324, 10 steals).

And, to think, Reggie Sanders hasn't even made an impact after hitting .285 with 26 homers, 72 RBIs and 36 stolen bases last season. Batting just .139 and on the disabled list since April 30 with a sprained ankle, he hopes to return Tuesday at Milwaukee.

``I'm just waiting for everybody to be clicking at the same time,'' said Jordan, who homered twice and had a career-high seven RBIs Sunday in a 12-6 victory over San Diego. ``It's going to be a great experience.''

It's not too bad right now.

The Braves, 30-13 as they took Monday off before a nine-game road trip, have at least 10 hits in each of their last seven games — the team's longest streak of that sort since an eight-game run in July 1993.

``They have speed at the top of the order and good hitting throughout the lineup,'' Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. ``This is as good a Braves team as I've seen. If (injured pitcher John) Smoltz was on the club, they'd really be scary.''

During this streak, the Braves are hitting .370 with 14 homers and 57 runs, raising their team average from .268 to .286. They ranked third in the NL behind Colorado and St. Louis.

Unlike past seasons, this is a balanced offense, as likely to beat its opponent with a stolen base as a three-run homer. Led by Veras and Furcal, Atlanta was No. 4 in the league with 36 thefts. Last week, in a three-game sweep of San Francisco, the 19-year-old Furcal forced the Giants into three throwing errors and scored from second on an infield grounder.

The Braves have long had some of the game's best power hitters — including Fred McGriff, David Justice and Ron Gant — but they are more efficient at the plate, averaging 5.8 strikeouts per game after fanning at a rate of 7.2 just three years ago.

Also, GM John Schuerholz has vastly improved the bench with Bobby Bonilla, Wally Joyner and Trenidad Hubbard. Bonilla, who seemed washed-up last season with the Mets, has discovered new life filling in for Sanders, hitting .300 with three homers and 12 RBIs.

No one is hotter than Jordan, who has struggled with aches and pains most of the season. He went on the DL after opening day with a strained muscle in his rib cage and was hitting .219 with two homers and 12 RBIs through May 11.

Then, hitting coach Merv Rettenmund noticed a flaw in Jordan's swing. Compensating for his sore ribs, he failed to turn his upper body enough as the ball approached, resulting in a loss of bat speed.

``Because he has such a wide-open stance, he has to turn when he's getting ready to swing,'' Rettenmund explained. ``When he's not doing that, he's just feeling for the ball.''

Jordan also heeded a stern call from his father, Alvin.

``He told me to give it all I've got, don't be afraid to swing,'' the younger Jordan recalled. ``He told me to get myself on the DL if I was afraid to swing.''

Since the tip from Rettenmund and the lecture from his father, Jordan is 18-of-30 (.600) with seven homers and 15 RBIs in eight games. Three times in 10 days, he homered twice in a game. Just like that, his average is back in familiar territory.

``I always tell the young players that everything comes in bunches,'' Jordan said. ``Just be patient if you feel like you're a good ballplayer.''

Largely due to the early-season slumps for Jordan and Sanders, Atlanta still ranked just ninth in the NL with 228 runs. And how's the pitching? The Braves leads the league with a team ERA of 3.69.

Some things haven't changed all that much.