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2. ATLANTA BRAVES

Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H13

Welcome to baseball's version of Groundhog Day. Every year, it seems, people figure the Braves' run of division titles -- it's at 13 now, but who's counting -- will end. But will it?

"The Braves are the team that everybody has to go through in this division," Washington Manager Frank Robinson said. "I don't care what the rest of us do."


"This is what I want to do," says Atlanta's John Smoltz, who is moving back into the starting rotation after saving 144 games over the past three seasons. (Todd Anderson -- AP)


But there is a sense that the Braves won the division with smoke and mirrors last year, and can't do it again.

"Everyone knew we weren't the best team," right-hander John Smoltz said.

Now, in an effort to continue the streak, some serious tinkering. Smoltz saved 144 games over the last three years. So what did Braves General Manager John Schuerholz -- perhaps the craftiest front-office man in any pro sport -- do? He traded for Milwaukee closer Danny Kolb, who saved 39 games a year ago. That moved Smoltz back into the rotation, where he was stellar this spring. Once Schuerholz pulled off a trade for Oakland's Tim Hudson, the Braves had effectively landed two new starters.

"This is what I want to do," Smoltz said of his starting role.

The most significant potential pitfall, however, is the corner outfield spots. Can Brian Jordan, 38, and Raul Mondesi, 34, provide the necessary pop? They combined for nine homers last year. Chipper Jones hit only .248 in 2004. Could the road end?


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