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Braves' Pitch For Long Run

4-Year Extension for Hudson Helps Counteract Club's Frequent Turnover

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page D07

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., March 1 -- The Atlanta Braves never hold on to their best players, and they never win in the postseason. Correction: almost never. There was that one World Series title, 10 long years ago, breaking up a string of 12 other fruitless Octobers. And on Tuesday afternoon, there was this: a joyful news conference, a smiling 29-year-old ace, a four-year contract extension, a future that seemed limitless instead of predestined for summer success and October heartbreak.

"Everything just felt right," said Tim Hudson, who signed a four-year, $47 million deal with the team he grew up rooting for, even though he might have commanded more as a free agent. "Money is not everything in this game. You have to be happy."

Braves hope that Tim Hudson, who signed a $47 million deal, will help them reverse their almost always disappointing postseason fortunes. (Charles W. Luzier -- Reuters)

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For the Braves, the signing means they have locked up one of baseball's few aces through what should be the prime of his career. And it validated the team's decision to give up three younger players to acquire Hudson from the Oakland Athletics in December. Hudson has a career record of 92-39, including a 75-2 mark when receiving at least four runs of offensive support.

"This is a guy," said Braves General Manager John Schuerholz, "who epitomizes excellence in his profession."

The signing also resonated throughout a clubhouse that had grown accustomed to seeing players like Hudson come and go before anyone could get to know them.

"Gary Sheffield. J.D. Drew," said veteran Braves pitcher John Smoltz. "There were so many one- and two-year players who would help us win, but who inevitably walked away. The only thing that softened the blow every year was that we were able to keep winning. [Hudson] could have been the same way. That's why this is such an important day for this organization."

Few are as qualified as Smoltz to place the moment in its proper context. He is the last remaining player from the 1991 Braves team that started it all -- 13 straight division titles (not counting the strike-shortened 1994 season), including all 10 in the National League East since the division realignment. The constant changeover has been astounding; only three other current Braves -- Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Eddie Perez -- date as far back as 2000.

Now that Hudson has helped the Braves break one unsavory trend, they hope he will help them break the other one. That task, however, may be more difficult.

There is a special place in baseball's history for the Braves of the Schuerholz Era. Call it the Hall of Just Good. The Braves have always been careful to trumpet their dazzling regular season success -- and rightly so, as the 13 straight division titles is unprecedented in major professional sports -- while minimizing the disappointment of their postseason failures.

Schuerholz has never taken kindly to any suggestion that he has been building teams better suited for the regular season than for the playoffs -- saying the two are not mutually exclusive. But even his own players argue exactly the opposite.

"When you lose in the playoffs, and each one of them is in a similar fashion," Smoltz said, "there's got to be a common denominator. To me, we've lacked power in the rotation -- the ability to match up with other teams' number ones and number twos. Now that doesn't mean in any given short series we couldn't pitch perfectly and win. But there's a reason why over course of a season we were able to win more [regular season] games than most, but in a short series fell short so many times."

The fact is, power pitching wins in the postseason. As good as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine were in their time in Atlanta, the two or three or four runs they would give up in postseason games were too many. And in recent years, as Maddux and Glavine departed, the Braves were even more helpless; they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.

"We got beat by the same formula in the short series every year," Smoltz said. "We got beat by [Arizona's] Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling [in 2001]. We got beat by [Chicago's] Kerry Wood and Mark Prior [in 2003]. We got beat by [Houston's] Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt [in 2004]. In every case, we got by power pitching that limited how many times we hit the ball."

Schuerholz won't say so out loud, but his offseason moves suggest a grudging acceptance of Smoltz's argument. And to many observers, his execution of those moves was sheer brilliance.

First, he acquired closer Dan Kolb from the Milwaukee Brewers, allowing Smoltz to move out of the bullpen -- where he had shifted since undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery in 2000, becoming one of the top handful of closers in the game -- and back into the rotation, where he had thrived for almost a decade, winning the NL Cy Young Award in 1996.

Then, Schuerholz pulled off the trade for Hudson, gambling he could re-sign the pitcher before he hit free agency. Somehow, in a winter player market sorely lacking in number one starters, Schuerholz came away with two. And on Tuesday, he not only signed Hudson to a long-term deal, but he did so for less money than the rival New York Mets paid Pedro Martinez, who is four years older and has a history of shoulder trouble.

"The man," said Chipper Jones, speaking about Schuerholz, "is as close to a genius as you'll ever see in the GM business. This team is much better equipped than we have been in the last two or three years to go deep in the postseason. That's the one thing we've lacked -- power guys at the top of our rotation.

"But there's one thing about being built for the postseason. You have to get there first."

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