Once again, it's a Braves new world

Jeff Francoeur. Ryan Langerhans. Wilson Betemit. Pete Orr.

Not exactly household names. In a few years you'll probably know them well. Right now they practically have to wear name tags in their own locker room. They're just a few of the 17 rookies that helped the Atlanta Braves get to this week's National League Division Series against the Houston Astros.

At the beginning of the year, each wore the title of "prospect" like a new Rawlings glove. Now they're in the thick of the pennant chase - and the main reason Atlanta won its unprecedented 14th division title in a row.

Holding a virtual casting call to fill out their lineup wasn't supposed to be the plan this year. The Braves, who began their run in 1991 when the names were more familiar - Glavine, Smoltz, Pendleton - were hobbled by veteran injuries and free-agent failures. [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly named Greg Maddux as part of the '92 Braves. Maddux didn't join the team until 1993.]

So the greenhorns were prematurely thrown into the big-league fire, baptized by 95 m.p.h. fastballs. And as Braves always seem to do, they passed through unburned. A couple - Francoeur and Langerhans - are candidates to be this year's National League rookie of the year. Three of them - Francoeur, Betemit, and Orr - hit .300 or better.

It takes a deep talent pool to sustain such success. Atlanta's is the Marianas Trench. Since 1991, the Braves have produced two MVPs and could have another this year - centerfielder Andruw Jones, who led the Majors in home runs. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the period during which Atlanta had two MVPs.]

They've also won six Cy Young Awards - three for Greg Maddux, two for Tom Glavine, one for John Smoltz - since 1991. Much of the credit goes to pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who has made a career of making bad pitchers good and good ones great. His main reclamation project this year was Jorge Sosa, Friday night's starter in Game 3 in Houston. Mazzone helped Sosa lower his earned run average a full three runs over last year when he was with Tampa Bay. Rumor has it that George Steinbrenner wants to lure Mazzone to the Bronx next year.

If there's a blemish on an otherwise sterling record it's the fact that the Braves have won just one World Series during the stretch, in 1995. For a team with so much talent and so many winning seasons, they've played the bridesmaid too often. This year, they may again catch the bouquet in Houston or St. Louis.

But in the free-agent era, 14 consecutive division crowns is DiMaggio-esque. And with so many 20-somethings taking the field, there could be another decade and a half of October baseball to be played among the Georgia pines.

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