The Atlanta Braves could be having a difficult season. Cleanup hitter Andres Galarraga is battling cancer and won't play this year. Closer Kerry Ligtenberg is sidelined until 2000 with an arm injury. Aces Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who have six Cy Youngs between them, resembled a lot of other pitchers who were getting bashed the first half of the 1999 season.

This week, the Braves lost starting pitcher John Smoltz to the disabled list with a sore elbow. Catcher Javier Lopez, who is hitting .321, has been on the disabled list since June 22 and may be out for several more weeks, and perhaps the rest of the season, with a knee injury.

But there are the Braves in first place in the National League East. The club is playing without some vital players, but they are still playing with Brian Jordan. Who knows where the team might be without its newest star?

"We might be in first place if we didn't have him, but I'm not sure," said third baseman Chipper Jones. "It would be a lot tighter race if he wasn't here. No question, he's been the MVP of this team."

No one in the Braves clubhouse is arguing with Jordan's MVP status. The 32-year-old right fielder, a native of Baltimore who considered a five-year, $40 million offer from the Orioles last November, is among the NL's RBI leaders with 70 and is hitting .293.

After spending 11 seasons in the St. Louis chain, including seven years with the Cardinals, Jordan became a free agent following the 1998 season and signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Braves last November. He was going to add to a powerful lineup that included Galarraga, Jones and Lopez, as well as newly acquired second baseman Bret Boone, who came in a trade with Cincinnati.

But Galarraga, who hit 44 home runs and drove in 121 runs in 1998 and who had averaged 129 RBI over his last four seasons, had cancer diagnosed just before spring training and was ruled out for the season. Jordan's role suddenly expanded. Penciled in as the No. 5 or No. 6 hitter, he was moved to No. 4 in the lineup and asked to be the main RBI threat.

"I knew with Galarraga out of the lineup it would be a big loss, so I knew my responsibilities were to step up a little bit," Jordan said. "Everybody would be counting on Brian Jordan to pick up the slack and Chipper Jones to pick up the slack and Javy Lopez to pick up the slack."

But Jordan is not a classic cleanup hitter who picks up runs with one swing of his bat. His stance is crouched and compact and he prefers line drives, not the long ball. When he hit 25 homers in 1998, it represented a career milestone. Jordan is a faster runner than most cleanup hitters and has proved it this season with seven infield hits, which leads the Braves.

"He's not the classic cleanup hitter, but he's a clutch hitter, especially with runners in scoring position," Glavine said. "He's one of the best two-strike hitters in the league. He's also a great guy in the clubhouse who fits right in."

Baltimore wanted to fit Jordan into its lineup, but Jordan accepted the Braves' $40 million offer over the Orioles' $40 million offer for several reasons. He grew up in Baltimore County and attended Milford High, but Jordan makes his home in Stone Mountain, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. He settled here after playing with the Atlanta Falcons from 1989 to 1991. Jordan was a two-sport star at the University of Richmond, where he was a Division I-AA all-American defensive back and an all-conference center fielder for the Spiders baseball team. When he dropped football and decided to play full time for the Cardinals, he kept his home in Atlanta.

"Living at home there's less stress, I can kiss my kids [Briana, 7; Bryson, 5] good night, I can catch their games once in a while," Jordan said. "I was away from them most of the season when I played in St. Louis. You're more comfortable because you're home. Maybe I could have waited to get more money from the Yankees, the Orioles or the Mets, but once you get past $5 million, geez, how much money do you need?"

Jordan said the other reason he opted for the Braves instead of the Orioles was because the Orioles wanted to defer some of the money. Atlanta gave Jordan a $3 million signing bonus and $4 million in the first year of the deal. He said Baltimore, which signed Albert Belle instead, wasn't willing to match that offer. The Yankees and Mets also courted Jordan, but he said the New York teams were waiting to see what Atlanta was offering.

"I wanted to get the decision over right away and know where I was going to be," Jordan said. "It was a tight race. Atlanta had the edge because that's where I live. But it wasn't set in stone because the Yankees and Baltimore, and the Mets, were right in it. Atlanta made the quicker decision while everyone else wanted to wait and see what the other would do."

It seemed risky for teams to be chasing an expensive player who has missed many games because of injury. He played in just 53 games in 1994 and 47 games in 1997 because of injury, but Jordan was getting hurt by freak accidents on the field, because he slammed into outfield walls chasing fly balls, or dove head first into bases or on outfield turf.

Jordan was in better shape the last two seasons because of an offseason conditioning and weight training program designed by Bob Kersee, the coach and husband of Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

His work with Kersee helped Jordan get off to a fast start in 1998 with the Cardinals and he hit .316 with a career-high 25 home runs batting behind Mark McGwire. Jordan felt he should have made the NL all-star team in 1998 with a .339 batting average at the break, but he was left off the team when then-Florida manager Jim Leyland picked his NL reserves. Jordan laughs when he says, "I was the Snub of the Year."

Despite his hot start this season, he had made plans to spend the all-star break at his home in Orlando with his children, wife and parents. Instead, he will head to Boston.

"I'm just happy it worked out this way," Jordan told the Associated Press. "Making it this year doesn't lighten the load [of missing last year's squad] because I felt I'd done everything I could do."

CAPTION: "No question, he's been the MVP of this team," Chipper Jones says of cleanup hitter Brian Jordan, right.