Braves celebrate another division title, their 14th straight
ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Braves celebrated No. 14 like it was the first. For all those rookies, it was.
With a youthful, joyful exuberance that was there way back in 1991 — when it all started — the Braves wrapped up their 14th straight division title on Tuesday night.
And what a party it was, especially for Jeff Francoeur. The rookie got tackled on the field by Chipper Jones, stuck his head in an ice bin and got taken down again by Jones in the clubhouse.
“Let me at him!” Francoeur mockingly screamed.
He was held back by Marcus Giles, who is 8 inches shorter and 45 pounds lighter.
“It’s not worth it,” Giles said. “We’re going all the way to Halloween. You can get him then.”
The Braves actually clinched midway through a 12-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies, the title assured when the second-place Philadelphia Phillies lost to the New York Mets 3-2.
Manager Bobby Cox cleared his bench, finishing the game with a lineup that included eight rookies and second-year player Adam LaRoche.
That was only appropriate, considering the Braves have used 17 rookies during an amazing season in which they shrugged off injuries and breakdowns by several key players.
“This ranks right up there,” said Cox, standing outside his office in a champagne-drenched T-shirt that proclaimed another NL East championship. “This goes back 14 years.”
Clinching in style, Giles hit a pair of homers and LaRoche also homered.
“We knew we had clinched in the sixth,” the 21-year-old Francoeur said. “But we wanted to win. We wanted to earn it.”
After Atlanta became the second team to wrap up a title, following the NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals, everyone gave credit to the rookies. Yep, even Andruw Jones, a leading candidate for MVP with 51 homers and 128 RBI.
“Sure, I’ve had a good season,” he said. “But without them, we wouldn’t be here.”
The celebration at Turner Field took a while to get going. The Braves had just finished off a four-run fifth inning, giving them a 7-1 lead, when the Mets finished off Philadelphia.
A smattering of fans apparently learned of the Phillies’ loss via cell phone or other means, clapping as soon as Bobby Abreu struck out. “Let’s go Mets!” one man yelled. A tomahawk-chopping woman held up a handmade “2005″ sign above the left-field seats, right next to the official pennants detailing each of the Braves’ playoff seasons.
But most of the crowd was apparently in the dark. The out-of-town scoreboard merely showed the Mets leading 3-2 in the eighth. Even after the Rockies were retired in the top of the sixth, there was no mention of the division title.
Instead, the Braves showed the “Kiss Cam” on their massive center-field scoreboard — encouraging couples to kiss when the camera turned on them.
In the bottom half, Giles hit his second homer, a two-run shot, to give the Braves a 9-3 lead. When the Rockies made a pitching change, the crowd passed the time singing “YMCA.”
Finally, as Chipper Jones stepped into the box, the public address announcer revealed the news.
Mets 3, Phillies 2.
The celebration was on. The crowd of 25,306 gave the Braves a standing ovation, and several fans broke out signs marking the occasion. “In case you didn’t know — 14 in a row,” one said. Two shirtless men had painted a “1″ and a “4″ on their chests.
After Jones struck out, Cox began pulling his starters. Rookie Kelly Johnson pinch-hit for Andruw Jones. Little-used Brayan Pena batted for Brian McCann.
After Pena came through with a bases-loaded double, pushing the lead to 12-3 before he was thrown out at third, Cox cleared his bench. Starting pitcher Tim Hudson (14-9) was replaced by Jim Brower. Rookies Pete Orr, Wilson Betemit and Andy Marte entered the game.
Even Eddie Perez, who missed most of the season with a shoulder injury, got in as a pinch hitter — his first appearance since May 18. The Braves came out of the dugout to clap for one of the team’s most popular players. The crowd chanted, “Eddie! Eddie!”
“A lot of people ask me what was my best moment in baseball,” said Perez, who was MVP of the 1999 NL championship series. “This was it. This was No. 1.”
The Braves overcame all sorts of adversity to do what they always do — win the East.
When pitchers Mike Hampton and John Thomson went down with injuries, Atlanta dipped into its bullpen for journeyman Jorge Sosa, who had a career record of 11-26. He’s 13-3 this season.
When aging outfielders Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan failed to recapture their past form, the Braves turned to Francoeur and fellow rookies Johnson and Ryan Langerhans.
When Chipper Jones was sidelined by a foot problem, Betemit filled in ably. When new closer Dan Kolb didn’t work out, the Braves traded for Kyle Farnsworth. When catchers Johnny Estrada and Perez were ailing, McCann came up from the minors.
If nothing else, this season showed off the philosophy that has carried the Braves to one of the most remarkable streaks in any sport. It’s all about scouting and player development, which was evident in the clinching game.
Atlanta’s lineup included three rookies and eight homegrown players, the only exception being Hudson. And even he grew up a Braves’ fan in neighboring Alabama.
The youngsters were right in the middle of a four-run fifth, which essentially finished off the Rockies. Francoeur beat out a bases-loaded dribbler to third, driving in one run. Langerhans and McCann followed with bases-loaded walks to make it 7-1.
Aaron Cook (6-2) took the loss, giving up eight hits and six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings.
“This is pretty special,” Cox said. “When the rookies came up, the veterans turned it up a notch.”
Together, they knew how to celebrate.