February 21, 2007
Orlando -- It's cliché but it is true: All good things must come to an end.
The Atlanta Braves record run of consecutive postseason appearances came to crashing halt in 2006, but the team is ready to start a new streak this year.
The Atlanta Braves are off and running to reclaim a National League Eastern division title that they didn't win for the first time since moving to the division in 1994.
Manager Bobby Cox says, "We think we have a good team this year. We fixed a lot of areas, the front office, John and the guys, that were weaknesses last year."
What was broken with the Braves last year was the bullpen which blew a major league high 28 saves.
Atlanta is hoping that is how many saves closer Bob Wickman will have by the all-star break.
The biggest change to the bullpen is the offseason acquisitions of Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano who are counted to protect any lead until the Braves can go their closer in the ninth.
John Smoltz says, "I think what it does is it has a team effect. We don't have to score that extra run or make a desperation play or make an error because we are trying to prevent a run."
The Braves bullpen may be its strength but there still question marks for this team.
One is the return of starting pitcher Mike Hampton who missed all of last season recovering from elbow surgery.
Hampton says, "Today was a little more intense that throwing in the bullpen with no hitter. The next step will be facing guys live in games. That will be even more intense."
The second concern is the right side of the infield where Scott Thorman inherits Adam LaRoche's spot at first and Kelly Johnson is the favorite to start at second, even though the only time he played the position was his freshman year in high school.
Johnson says, "There is a spot there and I have been working hard. There are several guys that can play. I just have to go out and play and see what happens."
Cox adds, "We have not give that job to anybody right now. They are going to have to play their way into it."
The Braves will open their spring schedule next Wednesday against Georgia Tech at Disney Stadium.
All of the Braves have reported to training camp except for pitcher Rafael Soriano and infielder Wily Aybar, who are waiting for visa issues to be resolved.