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Braves pushing for playoffs with remarkable run

ATLANTA - Chipper Jones feels as though he's returned to the 1990s.

Those were giddy times for the Atlanta Braves, who won their division just about every season and often made it to the World Series - five times by the time the decade was done.

Well, look who's making an improbable bid for the playoffs.

Yep, it's the Braves, the franchise that fell on hard times after the last of its record 14 straight division titles in 2005.

A 4-0 shutout of the Florida Marlins on Monday night was Atlanta's 15th victory in 17 games, closing the gap on Colorado in the wild-card race to two games. The Braves haven't even given up on chasing down defending World Series champion Philadelphia in the NL East, pulling within four games of the division leader.

There's only six games left in the regular season, so Atlanta still faces long and longer odds to catch either team. But this late-season run has sure made things a lot more fun around the clubhouse for players who had almost forgotten what it was like to play meaningful games in September.

'This is the feeling we had back in the '90s,' said Jones, who's been a Brave for his entire 15-year career. 'We're expecting to win every time we go out there.'

In another nod to the Clinton era, it's the starting pitchers leading the way. The club that once dominated with Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux has again put together one of baseball's best rotations - and one that has the potential to hold up for years to come.

Start with a pair of 23-year-olds: Second-year pitcher Jair Jurrjens has won 14 games and ranks fourth in the National League with a 2.61 ERA. Rookie right-hander Tommy Hanson is 11-4 with a 2.98 ERA, which would rank among the top 10 if he had enough innings to qualify.

Throw in 33-year-old Javier Vazquez, a pitcher who was supposed to be fragile in big games but has nearly been unhittable down the stretch. He's thrown a pair of complete games in September and improved to 15-9 with the NL's sixth-best ERA (2.83). Derek Lowe was supposed to be the ace and does have 15 wins, but he's probably no better than the fourth-best pitcher on this staff. And former ace Tim Hudson has pitched well since a yearlong recovery from major elbow surgery.

During this run, the starters have gone 12-2 with a 2.87 ERA. In 12 of those 17 games, they lasted at least six innings. Overall, the Braves have the league's second-best ERA (3.59).

'We're finally capitalizing on the pitching we've had all year,' outfielder Matt Diaz said. 'Our pitching had us in every game. We just had not been able to get the hits when it mattered most. It seems like we're getting those hits lately, and hopefully it doesn't stop.'

While this is undoubtedly a pitching-centric team, general manager Frank Wren pulled off a couple of deals that bolstered the offense just enough to make a difference in the final month. Center fielder Nate McLouth was acquired from Pittsburgh, but the bigger splash was created by the trade-deadline move that brought Adam LaRoche back to Atlanta. The slugging first baseman is hitting .351 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs in 51 games for the Braves.

Imagine where Atlanta might be if Jones wasn't having one of the worst seasons of his career. Last year's NL batting champ has been mired in a 31/2-month slump that knocked his average all the way down to .273 and left him still two homers shy of his 15th straight 20-homer season.

But even Jones is showing signs of perking up over this final week. He hit a towering homer off the right-field foul pole in the latest win, Atlanta's seventh in a row.

'There hasn't been any one person that we've had to ride,' Hudson said. 'We've won as a team. We've put ourselves in position to make a run at it as a team. I think if we can get in there, I like our chances.'

Indeed, the Braves could be a handful if they do make it to the postseason, if for no other reason than having three hard-throwing pitchers with dominating stuff at the top of their rotation.

'I don't think there's any doubt that if we were to make it, people would have to take us very seriously because of our pitching,' Jones said. 'We have the ability to shut a team down, and we have just enough offense to scare people.'

While some are reminded of Atlanta's remarkable second-half run to chase down the San Francisco Giants for the NL West title in 1993, this stretch is probably more reminiscent of Colorado in 2007. The Rockies won 14 of their last 15 games, including 11 in a row, to claim the wild card.

Then they rode that momentum all the way to the World Series.

Now, it's the Braves who are trying to do the same thing to Colorado. Atlanta appears to have the more favorable schedule with its last six games at home, four of them against the 103-loss Washington Nationals. Colorado hosts Milwaukee for three games starting Tuesday, then hits the road for its final series against the NL-leading Los Angeles Dodgers.

'Weirder things have happened,' Hudson said.