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Braves Hurdle Hazards

Atlanta - Qualify it any way you choose. Slice from any and every angle.

Analyze it, categorize it. And make the point that no other National League

team had to play more than three games against the Yankees. Belabor that if you

must. And understand that all of it makes no difference now. The Mets begin

their three-game duel against the Braves tonight as the second-place team in

the NL East, the team with the lesser record, the challenger.

That is remarkable; not that the Mets are second to the Braves, but that the

Braves are first. Still and yet again. With 12 games remaining in the season

for both teams, the Braves have the best record in the division. And after all

they have endured! In more ways than one, they are the challenged.

Not just tonight, tomorrow night and Thursday afternoon when the Mets try to

assert themselves; the Braves have been challenged since the day cancer was

detected in Andres Galarraga. No team this side of the Jets has been so

compromised by injury this season. Yet no team has a record equal to the

Braves'.

"It really is remarkable," general manager John Schuerholz said Sunday

afternoon. The Braves had just played without Brian Jordan, and Schuerholz

acknowledged they might be without their No. 4 batter for the remainder of the

season. Then he told of a conversation he and club president Stan Kasten had

before the game. "Stan said, 'If goes down, the rest of the league isn't going

to be happy because we'll probably play better.' That's the way it's been so

far. We've done a good job of circling the wagons."

But the number of wagons is decreasing. "Yes," Schuerholz said. "The circles

are becoming more concentric . . . But after everything - all the diminishment,

all the deletions-to have the best record . . . I think anyone would say,

'That's remarkable.'

"We lost our cleanup hitter and the heart and soul of our team [Galarraga].

That's a lot by itself."

With apologies to Dr. Seuss, Galarraga is the Cat on the Hat. Players around

the league, Mets second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo included, have inscribed their

caps with No. 14 as tangible evidence Galarraga is in their thoughts. Some

Pirates have worn Jason Kendall's No. 18. Some umpires have worn the numbers of

their dismissed comrades. But if the Braves were to wear the numbers of all

their fallen colleagues, the caps would look like a quadratic equation had

exploded nearby.

Closer Kerry Ligtenberg, set-up reliever Rudy Seanez, catcher Javy Lopez,

starter Odalis Perez and now, perhaps, Jordan, who was to have protected

Galarraga in the batting order. "If people had told me our starters [Tom

Glavine and Greg Maddux] would have struggled as they did early after we lost

our cleanup man and our closer, I would have thought them batty," Schuerholz

said. "And then to lose our catcher," Schuerholz said. "You factor that in, and

you scratch your head. And then we're still in first place . . . you scratch

your head some more."

The injuries seem to have had greater impact on the team's personality and

resolve than its record. The Braves could win 100 games for the third straight

season, and another appearance on October's stage is more than likely. But this

set of Braves will be different from the teams that have preceded it into the

last seven postseasons.

"We're more of a ham 'n' eggs team now," Chipper Jones said. "I'm kind of the

ham . . . and the eggs are pretty scrambled. We know how to snatch a win. We've

won - what? - 28 times in our last at-bat? We've had to because we haven't

been ahead as much."

But they're ahead in the standings, though their lead is thin, and the Mets are

a formidable challenge. The Braves' successes against them the last two

seasons mean little because of the wholesale personnel changes each team has

undergone since the end of last season, when the Braves eliminated the Mets,

and since July 4, the last time the teams played.

"They've improved. They've been coming. I've been watching them all summer.

I've been watching them since May," Maddux said. "They've been keeping us

company. It's a race, a solid race. But we're in front. Right? And it doesn't

matter how either team got this far."

New York Sports