Brian McCann looks at the standings today and smiles. The Atlanta Braves are in first place in the National League East with a 25-14 record, a half-game ahead of the New York Mets. However, when the Braves catcher thinks back to the final day of the 2006 season, he still feels sadness. The looks on the faces of veteran teammates like John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, and Andruw Jones late that afternoon remain seared in McCann’s memory.

“It’s really hard to describe but I’ll never forget how those guys looked,” McCann said. “It was like they didn’t know what to do. The season was over. We didn’t win the division. We didn’t make the playoffs. We didn’t even have a winning season. We had known for a while that we weren’t going to the playoffs but it really hit home on that last day. We all left for the offseason with a bad feeling.”

The Braves’ incredible run of 11 straight division titles ended, as they finished in third place in the National League East with a 79-83 record last season. “I remember sitting at home those first few days after the season ended and just kind of having a hard time believing we weren’t in the playoffs,” Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. “It was really a strange feeling.” Francoeur had a perspective on it that transcends his only being in his first full major-league season last year-he grew up as a Braves fan in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, and lived and died on every pitch each October.

Oddly enough, one man who wasn’t melancholy was Bobby Cox, the Braves’ manager throughout the entire run, and the fourth-winningest skipper in major league history behind Connie Mack, John McGraw, and Tony La Russa. “I was really proud of our team,” Cox said. “I felt we had a good year. We had a lot of guys hit the heck out of the ball. We had some pitchers have really good years. I knew we had played better than our record had indicated. We knew we had one problem, though, that proved to be costly and we needed to fix that problem.”

That problem was the bullpen. The Braves finished last season with 29 blown saves, more than any other club in the National League. Their 4.39 relief ERA ranked tenth among the 16 NL teams. “There is nothing more demoralizing than losing leads late in games,” Braves General Manager John Schuerholz said. “It made for a frustrating year.”

Schuerholz began working on the problem last season when he traded catching prospect Max Ramirez to Cleveland for veteran closer Bob Wickman on July 20. Wickman recorded 18 saves and posted an outstanding 1.04 ERA in 28 games and 26 innings from that point of the season on, and signed a one-year, $6.5 million contract extension in September.

Scheurholz made finding two quality set-up men for Wickman his offseason priority. He filled the first of the two holes during the winter meetings by acquiring right-hander Rafael Soriano from Seattle in a trade for southpaw starter Horacio Ramirez. In mid-January, the Braves acquired left-hander Mike Gonzalez from Pittsburgh along with top shortstop prospect Brent Lillibridge in a deal for first baseman Adam LaRoche and outfield prospect Jamie Romak.

The moves couldn’t have worked out any better than they have in the early going. “Basically, we have three closers,” Cox said. “Wickman is our closer, but I feel 100 percent comfortable in bringing in Gonzalez or Soriano to pitch the ninth, too. It’s a great luxury to have. So many teams spend so much time searching for one closer. We have three, and I couldn’t feel more fortunate.”

Neither can the Braves’ players, who trudged back to the clubhouse after too many difficult losses last year. “The bullpen has made all the difference in the world this season, and I don’t think there is a person in this clubhouse who will tell you any differently,” McCann said. “The bullpen has been great. It’s the reason we are where we are now.”

While the Braves are only ninth in the NL with a 3.88 ERA, the bullpen has indeed been more of a strength this season, as it has four of the top 20 relievers in the NL in WXRL. That’s the case even though Wickman, who came off the Disabled List Tuesday after missing 15 days with an upper back strain, ranks 222nd out of 243 pitchers with a -.287 mark.

Here are the Braves pitchers in the top 20:

Pitcher         Rank     WRXL
Rafael Soriano   1      1.964
Mike Gonzalez   17       .914
Tyler Yates     18       .913
Peter Moylan    19       .908

While the bullpen has been strong, the Braves’ offense is also a championship-caliber outfit, ranking fifth in the NL in runs scored. Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and shortstop Edgar Renteria are the veteran anchors of a lineup that includes such young talents as McCann, Francoeur, first baseman Scott Thorman, and second baseman Kelly Johnson. Speedy Willie Harris has provided a lift in left field after washing out with the Chicago White Sox and Boston.

Here is how each of the Braves’ regulars ranks among the 382 NL hitters in terms of VORP:

Player           Rank     VORP
Chipper Jones      6      20.8
Edgar Renteria    18      15.3
Kelly Johnson     21      13.4
Jeff Francoeur    35       9.0
Brian McCann      41       8.3
Willie Harris     48       7.2
Andruw Jones      56       6.1
Scott Thorman     80       4.0

The backbone of the Braves’ long run of success was the starting rotation, but ironically that’s less the case this year. Tim Hudson is enjoying a renaissance after struggling in his first two years in Atlanta after being acquired from Oakland in a trade. Hudson leads major league pitchers in VORP at 26.0, and Smoltz is 14th in the NL at 12.2. While the Braves’ rotation is eighth in the NL with a 4.05 ERA, it drops off after Smoltz and Hudson. Journeyman left-hander Mark Redman has bombed after being signed in spring training as a replacement for lefty Mike Hampton, who will miss a second straight season because of reconstructive elbow surgery. Redman’s -13.3 VORP is the worst among 242 NL pitchers. The only lower figure in the major leagues is the -21.8 of Seattle’s Jeff Weaver. Left-hander Chuck James (6.2) has performed relatively well, but the Braves are still waiting for their two other young starters, right-handers Kyle Davies (0.0) and Anthony Lerew (-1.3) to distinguish themselves. “We have a lot of talented starting pitchers,” Cox said. “Huddy and Smoltzie have been terrific, and the younger guys are holding their own. We’ll be fine.”

If that is indeed the case, then history could very well repeat itself and the Braves could make it 15 division titles in 16 seasons. That is the standard this organization has set for many years. “I look at the standings, and it’s more what I’m used to seeing,” Francouer said with a grin. “That’s where the Braves are supposed to be.”

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