When it's time for the children to go back to school in late August, the Atlanta Braves usually have a commanding lead in the National League East. Braves fans yawn, roll over and set their alarm clocks for October and the postseason.
Somebody better shake the Atlanta fans from their slumber a little early -- there were just 30,822 at 50,528-seat Turner Field Wednesday for a game against postseason contender Cincinnati -- because the Braves are in a divisional title chase for the first time since 1993.
A rash of injuries and the terrific play of the New York Mets have kept Atlanta from running away from the division. The Braves, who have a seven-game winning streak, are just 1 1/2 games up on New York in the National League East.
"It feels a little like 1991," said pitcher Tom Glavine, referring to the franchise's breakthrough season, when they went from worst to first in the NL West and landed in the World Series.
It's the first time since the strike-shortened season of 1994 that Atlanta has been challenged this late in the season. In 1995, the Braves won the NL East by 21 games over the Mets and Phillies. In 1996, Atlanta won the division by eight games over Montreal. In 1997, it was a nine-game edge over Florida at the end of the season. In 1998, the Braves won the division by 18 games over the second-place Mets.
After Wednesday's 5-2 victory over the Reds, Atlanta owned the best record in baseball (80-49), a testament to the depth of talent on a team blessed with a $73.5 million payroll, the fourth highest in baseball. But the Braves have seven fewer victories than at this time last season largely because of key injuries. It is a team relying more on defense and base stealing than home runs, making them less feared than in past seasons. Among the Braves' setbacks this season:
First baseman and cleanup hitter Andres Galarraga (44 home runs, 121 RBI in 1998) was lost for the season just before spring training when cancer was discovered in his back.
Closer Kerry Ligtenberg (30 of 34 in saves in 1998) blew out his elbow in spring training and is out for the year.
Catcher Javier Lopez was hitting .317 when he was lost for the season with a torn ligament in his right knee on July 26.
Pitcher John Smoltz was 9-2 when elbow pain reduced his effectiveness and twice landed him on the disabled list. His 6-4 victory over Cincinnati on Tuesday night was his first win since June 18. Smoltz has had to change his delivery from straight overhand to a three-quarter-arm motion to keep the pain from coming back in his elbow.
Shortstop Walt Weiss has played in just 84 of 128 games because of a strained left quadriceps.
Right fielder Brian Jordan received a second cortisone shot in his right hand Wednesday and will miss Friday's game at St. Louis. He has been bothered by a deep bruise since being hit by a pitch on June 22 by Montreal pitcher Mike Thurman.
There are more new problems this week for the Braves. Four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux (16-6) has a chipped bone in his right wrist and will miss his scheduled start Friday. Reliever Rudy Seanez (3.35 ERA in 56 games) was placed on the 15-day DL Tuesday with a sore elbow.
"You're talking about big-time players we've lost or we haven't had for the entire season," Glavine said. "With everything that has happened, we've worked really hard at maintaining the attitude that we can't do anything about the guys we've lost, but that we still have a lot of good players in here and we can win with the guys we have.
"If you take 100 homers and 200-plus RBI and a closer out of the lineup of other teams, I don't think they could do what we're doing."
What the Braves are doing is finding new ways to win. They swept three games from the San Diego Padres here last weekend without hitting a home run. On Monday night, in a 6-2 victory over the Reds, Atlanta stole seven bases, which is unusual for a team that relies on power.
The Braves are ninth in the National League in batting, but they have delivered timely hits and won a major league-high 23 games in their last at-bat. Seventeen of their past 20 victories have been come-from-behind wins and they have 46 come-from-behind victories, the most in the majors.
The Braves are wounded, but they still have enough talent to contend. Third baseman Chipper Jones is in the running for National League MVP with a .325 average and 33 homers, one short of his career high (34 in 1998). Only Sammy Sosa has more extra-base hits in the NL.
Desperate for a leadoff hitter, Manager Bobby Cox moved utility outfielder Gerald Williams to the top spot in the order. Williams is hitting .286 and the Braves are 16-4 when he bats leadoff.
General Manager John Schuerholz pulled off a deal just before the trading deadline with the Chicago Cubs for shortstop Jose Hernandez and pitcher Terry Mulholland that gave the Braves a huge boost. Hernandez, who has an above-average arm, is playing very good defense and hitting .282 in 20 games. Mulholland can start or relieve and has a 3.51 ERA in 25 2/3 innings.
The club is reveling in the excitement of a division chase and the fact it has overcome one injury after another to post the best record in the game.
"People are asking me why we're a half game up, or why we're tied and why we're not 12 games up like we usually are," said catcher Eddie Perez. "I say, `Where we are, we should be proud.' Seeing all the people that have gone down for us, it's amazing how well we're doing."