They can't ignore the past, it hangs above them on the facade of their own stadium. Thirteen pennants loom over the outfield, as the most tangible evidence of what the Atlanta Braves have been for the last decade and a half.

In this transitory age of baseball where teams rise and crumble in a matter of years, the Braves have done something unprecedented. They win their division. Every year. For 13 years.

"You'd have thought somewhere along the line there would be a wild card or two," pitcher Tim Hudson said this week.

Hudson is new to all this, having arrived from Oakland where he once played for a team that won 100 games and still finished in second place. So there is indeed an element of luck to the Atlanta record. But the 13 pennants on the facade at Turner Field is perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment of any franchise in recent baseball history.

There is, of course, a burden that comes with the past. With every passing National League Eastern Division championship comes a new pressure, an internal demand to keep the run alive.

"Every spring you hear the same thing, 'is this the year the streak ends?' " says outfielder Brian Jordan, who is in his second stint with Atlanta. "Then if we get off to a bad start you hear it again and again. Every day you hear it. 'Is this the year? Is this the year?' "

The Braves who left RFK Stadium last night losers of three of four to the Nationals are not the Braves of the past. If there is a time to ask "is this the year?" This might well be it.

The lineup is not filled anymore with certain Hall of Famers. Chipper Jones remains an anchor in the middle. Andruw Jones is still one of the game's best center fielders and a legitimate power threat. But too often they are relying on 46-year-old Julio Franco and a collection of players just up from the minor leagues.

The other day a television reporter walked up to Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox and asked "Are you in a youth movement?"

Cox laughed. Nothing has been designed, he said. Rather the young players have played their way onto the roster.

But the Atlanta clubhouse is a different place these days. Gone are so many familiar faces, replaced by the likes of Ryan Langerhans, Adam LaRoche and Wilson Betemit. Over the weekend, the team dissolved its experiment with the combustible Raul Mondesi deciding that his .211 average and 35 strikeouts in 41 games was not the path to a 14th division title. To replace him they called up another outfielder from the minors, Kelly Johnson, who after a week in the big leagues still does not have a hit.

This is why Cox says he doesn't often talk about the run of titles. Things change too fast, seasons take on lives of their own. What remains around this team that is relevant to the first championship -- won in the National League West -- back in 1991? The only player left from that time is John Smoltz. Everything else has changed.

"Remember," Cox said, "we lost our entire rotation three years ago."

This year the Braves pulled John Smoltz out of the bullpen where he had become one of the game's most dominant closers. They thought they could do this because they had picked up a rising closer, Dan Kolb, in a trade with Milwaukee. Kolb has been such a disappointment that they had to take him out of the closer's role and replace him with Chris Reitsma. Together Kolb and Reitsma have blown five saves. And while Kolb doesn't get credit for blowing last night's game to the Nationals, he helped set up the eighth-inning implosion and was also charged with his fifth loss of a still young season.

So perhaps this is the year. And yet with all the Braves problems they still sit in a tie with Florida for first in the National League East. It is a strange division, however. One in which every team has at least a .500 record.

The two things Atlanta has going for it are Cox, who has overseen all 13 titles, and a starting rotation that still boasts three elite starters -- Smoltz, Hudson and Mike Hampton. And as long as the Braves have three starters capable of winning 15-20 games, they will be in the middle of every pennant race.

They just might not win it.

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