It has become an annual event, but the Atlanta Braves never tire of celebrating a division title.
One night after clinching their record 13th consecutive division championship, the Braves meet the Florida Marlins in the middle game of their series at Turner Field.
Picked by many to finish behind Philadelphia and Florida in the NL East, the Braves again defied their critics and officially eliminated the Phillies and Marlins with an 8-7 victory Friday.
“They shouldn’t have picked against us,” third baseman Chipper Jones said.
Soaked in champagne during the postgame celebration, a smiling Jones reflected on the Braves’ most recent NL East championship.
“Besides my first one, this one is definitely the most special to me,” said Jones, a rookie on the Braves’ 1995 World Series championship team.
The Braves began their remarkable run with NL West titles from 1991-93. They joined the NL East for the strike-shortened 1994 season and have won the division each year since 1995.
“It never gets old,” said general manager John Schuerholz, beaming.
Atlanta became the third major league team to clinch its division, joining St. Louis in the NL Central and Minnesota in the AL Central. The New York Yankees have secured at least a wild-card spot.
Marcus Giles’ go-ahead single capped Atlanta’s three-run rally in the eighth inning Friday, and John Smoltz fittingly closed it out for his 41st save in 46 chances. Smoltz is the only Braves player to be a member of all 13 division championships.
“I was just trying to get three outs any way I could,” Smoltz said. “I felt like a rookie who didn’t know where he was but should have been the most calm.”
While the Braves’ run of division titles is unprecedented, they have just one World Series title to show for it. As they try to change their playoff fortune this season, they are hoping Mike Hampton will be healthy enough to contribute to a successful postseason run.
Hampton, who will start Saturday, has not pitched since Sept. 11, when he left the Braves’ 8-1 win over the Montreal Expos after 4 1-3 innings when he felt a pop in his left knee. An MRI revealed torn cartilage, but the 32-year-old left-hander plans to put off surgery until the offseason.
He had an encouraging bullpen session on Thursday.
“He really threw good,” Cox said. ”(Pitching coach) Leo (Mazzone) was really impressed with the way that he threw.”
The Marlins, who have lost four straight, moved closer to elimination with Friday’s loss, and their chances to defend their World Series title have all but vanished.
Florida is tied for fifth in the NL wild-card race, eight games behind the Chicago Cubs.