ATLANTA – The transformation from brute to ballerina wasn't easy. Already Kelly Johnson had made one transition, from the position of the artiste, shortstop, to that of the clumsy, left field, and now the Atlanta Braves wanted him to move one last time, to second base. And we might as well call the pivot of a double play what it really is: a glorified pirouette.
In the dead of winter, when temperatures dipped into the 20s most mornings, Johnson would show up at Turner Field and meet Glenn Hubbard, the Braves' former second baseman and current infield coach. Hubbard would hit ground balls, Johnson would vacuum them up. Then they'd practice the turn at second. Toes. Hips. Arms. He wanted to know it like Baryshnikov knew The Nutcracker.
"I wanted to make everything perfect," Johnson said. "It's almost like I would go out of my way constantly to convince myself I wasn't doing it right. And (Hubbard) would be there to say, 'It doesn't matter how you do it. It matters that you get it done.' "
Such advice seems as apropos for the entire Braves team as it does Johnson. For 14 consecutive seasons, the Braves had gotten it done, winning division titles and creating a template for organizational consistency. Atlanta's scouting department was among the game's finest, its general manager John Schuerholz among the game's savviest, its manager Bobby Cox among the game's wiliest and its players – from John Smoltz to Chipper Jones to Andruw Jones – among the game's best.
Last season, the inevitable came to roost and Atlanta did not win a division title. The manner in which they did it, however, disturbed the team's brain trust: The Braves couldn't even crack .500.
"It wasn't an aberration, necessarily," Schuerholz said. "We're going to make sure it doesn't happen again, though."
Tied atop the National League East with the New York Mets at 19-11, the Braves are making good on an offseason that included plenty more changes than Johnson's position. He's leading off for the first time in his career, too, and ranks in the NL's top 10 in runs, walks and on-base-plus-slugging.
Four spots behind him in the lineup, Jeff Francoeur, the 23-year-old slugger who ranks third in the NL with 27 RBIs, has learned the virtue of patience, walking 11 times. At this time last season, Francoeur hadn't walked once, and he didn't draw his 11th until Aug. 7.
And Tim Hudson, the perennial Cy Young candidate in his days with the Oakland Athletics, has reminded everyone – most of all himself – of how good he can be. After a 2006 in which his earned-run average ballooned to 4.86, Hudson leads the NL with 53 innings over seven starts and ranks third with a 1.70 ERA.
"Our standards are a lot higher than they were last year," Hudson said. "We expected to win. We just didn't get it done. The attitude is different with the team and myself. I'm a lot better than I was last year. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it.
"Last year isn't erased from my memory, I can tell you that. It's something I'm always going to remember. It was the first year I had like that. It's a humbling game, and I was humbled last year."
He wasn't the only one. Even when down talent, the Braves always had seemed to find ways to scratch out the division titles. Makeshift bullpens? They had won titles with Juan Berenguer, Alejandro Peña, Greg McMichael and Kerry Ligtenberg closing. Too young? Didn't stop the 2005 team, which featured 18 rookies.
Until last year, the Braves had a je ne sais quoi. Certainly the longtime triumvirate of Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine won them a majority of those division titles, but even since the latter two left, the Braves had avoided any stumbles, let alone a freefall like '06.
"After the way we started, we went out there trying to win, hoping we win," Francoeur said. "This year, we expect to win. With the way we hit the ball and with the pitching we've got, there's no reason we shouldn't win a lot of games this year."
With Hudson and Smoltz holding together a starting rotation that lost Mike Hampton for the season, the Braves' bullpen – last year such a liability – has an ERA of 3.66, more than three-quarters of a point better than '06. Since slow starts, left-hander Mike Gonzalez and right-hander Rafael Soriano, acquired this offseason to shore up the bullpen, have been nearly unhittable and more than made up for the injury that landed closer Bob Wickman on the disabled list.
In the meantime, the Braves have scored more than half of their 155 runs this season with two outs, and with runners in scoring position and two outs, they are hitting .303 and have an OPS of .962, almost 250 points higher than the NL average.
"We've got good hitters," Cox said. "That's one reason we're a good two-out-hitting team. A lot of that's not luck."
Most of what gets done in Atlanta is by design, with Cox and Schuerholz the architects. This is the 17th year of their partnership, the longest between a manager or coach and GM in North American professional sports, and its strength is evident in the Braves' approach to today's marketplace.
In that respect, even Schuerholz needed to change. In 2000, he could spend freely, with the Braves' payroll topping $82 million. That ranked second in the National League, fourth in baseball and $10 million behind the New York Yankees, who liked to make it rain even back then. Three years later, the Braves exceeded $100 million and had the game's third-highest payroll. Since that season, Schuerholz has been on a strict budget, and the Braves' sale from Time Warner to Liberty Media isn't expected to loosen the purse strings any.
On opening day, the Braves' payroll was $87.3 million, the 15th highest in the game.
"It's a greater challenge," Schuerholz said. "You've got to be creative. And our farm system allows us to do that."
More talent is on its way. Last week, the Braves summoned catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a switch-hitting specimen with power to all fields. Though he'll only spell Brian McCann – himself an All-Star and perhaps the game's best catcher behind Joe Mauer – he drove in the game-winning run Sunday in Atlanta's comeback victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Braves are hesitant to plug the hole at the back end of their rotation with 21-year-old left-hander Matt Harrison, who is 4-0 with a 2.14 ERA at Double-A Mississippi, but he could be an option toward the end of the summer.
"We all had to make changes," Francoeur said, "every one of us, and look at where we are."
Back where they once were.
And back where they're used to being.
- John Schuerholz