With the loss of slugger Gary Sheffield, red-hot catcher Javy Lopez and future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux, many experts felt like the Atlanta Braves' streak of consecutive division championships would end at 12.
Making matters worse, the team has been plagued with injuries.
Chipper Jones has been hobbled all season with a hamstring problem. Shortstop and leadoff man Rafael Furcal missed nearly a month with an injured right hand, and emerging team leader and fan favorite Marcus Giles has yet to return from a broken shoulder blade he suffered in mid-May.
Also, Dwayne Wise (center field), Adam LaRoche (first base), Horacio Ramirez (pitcher), Eli Marrero (outfield) and Paul Byrd (pitcher) are just a few of the key players who have spent time on the disabled list.
I must admit there have been times where I thought this Braves team would be lucky to finish .500. However, the Braves have started to show some signs of life in the last few weeks.
As of Thursday, the Braves trailed division-leading Philadelphia by only 1.5 games and were only a half game out of second place at 43-41.
Finally it seems like there is light at the end of the injury tunnel.
Chipper has begun swinging like the Chipper of old and seems extremely comfortable back at the hot corner.
Furcal is almost back to his old form as well. He came into his own last season hitting .292 with 35 doubles, 10 triples and 15 homers. He also just missed 200 hits, while scoring 130 runs and stealing 25 bases.
Plus LaRoche, Marrero and Byrd are back with the team, and Giles and Ramirez are nearing a return to the lineup.
Couple this with the young Braves Nick Green and Charles Thomas, who have made a big splash since being brought up from the minors.
Green is playing so well at second base that some fans are trying to configure ways to fit both he and Giles in the lineup when Giles returns.
Thomas is a breath of fresh air. His passion for the game is obvious, and his all-out play seems to be contagious.
On the mound, it appears Paul Byrd is fully healed after nearly two years away from baseball. Also Russ Ortiz's last couple of outings have been fabulous. He may win 20 games again this season. Jaret Wright has really pitched well all season. He is looking more and more like the World Series hero he was early in his career.
Early in the season even John Smoltz was struggling; but now he is back on his game and has become this team's vocal leader. Throw in John Thompson, Horacio Ramirez and an ever-improving bullpen, and the Braves could be back on top before the end of the month.
When Giles returns, the lineup will be pretty impressive:
Rafael Furcal, SS
Marcus Giles, 2B
J.D. Drew, RF
Chipper Jones, 3B
Johnny Estrada, C
Andruw Jones, CF
Adam LaRoche, 1B (Julio Franco vs. lefties)
Charles Thomas LF (Eli Marrero vs. lefties)
A bonus is still having solid players Nick Green and Mark Derosa off the bench.
When everyone is healthy, the rotation should be pretty solid as well. Russ Ortiz, Paul Byrd, John Thompson, Mike Hampton, Jaret Wright and Horacio Ramirez would give the Braves six pretty good starters to trim down by one with the sixth being in the bullpen or used as trade bait.
Speaking of trades, the Braves still could make a move before the trade deadline.
I can't believe I'm saying this, but unless they can pick up another quality starter I hope they do not make any moves. I like the lineup they could assemble in a few weeks. It is a nice mix of experienced veterans and hungry young players.
So before you write off the season, give this team a chance; they just may have enough to keep Atlanta's impressive streak alive.
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