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Braves' Francoeur at home with success


Just when it looked like injuries and advancing age might finally knock the Atlanta Braves off their National League East perch, they're back with a vengeance.

And they have brought reinforcements.

The Braves now have the second-best record in the National League (behind the St. Louis Cardinals) and are beginning to run away with their 14th consecutive division title.

They are doing it with an outfield of relative no-names and Most Valuable Player candidate Andruw Jones. One of those obscure players, though, may soon become a familiar face.

While young outfielders Kelly Johnson, 23, and Ryan Langerhans, 25, are experiencing normal rookie struggles, Jeff Francoeur, 21, looks like a man among boys.

The 6-foot-4 Atlanta native has stunned NL pitching since being recalled from Double-A July 7, when Brian Jordan (Milford Mill) went on the disabled list.

In his first 90 at-bats, Francoeur hit .400 with eight homers, nine doubles and 23 RBIs, for an astounding .767 slugging percentage. Another example of the most consistently outstanding farm system in baseball, Francoeur was the 23rd overall pick in the 2002 draft. He turned down a football scholarship to Clemson University to play for the hometown Braves. Now the big right fielder is getting rave reviews from all the right people.

"Francoeur's the talk of the city," manager Bobby Cox said. "He's captivated our fans, and rightfully so, with what he's done defensively and with the bat, too. Even when he strikes out it looks pretty good."

If there is one negative about Francoeur's hot start is that he didn't walk in his first 90 at-bats. But when a guy is batting .400, that's nitpicking.

"He's Johnny B. Goode. He's every All-American boy cliche you could think of. That's Jeff Francoeur," Chipper Jones said.

Lowell the trickster

For the second consecutive season, Florida Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell, who nearly became an Oriole at the trade deadline, used the hidden ball trick to pick up an out.

With the Marlins leading 6-5 in Wednesday's eighth inning against Arizona, a one-out single to left moved the Diamondbacks' Luis Terrero to third base. Lowell grabbed the ball from the left fielder, and kept it, noticing that Terrero and Arizona's third base coach Carlos Tosca had their heads down. Meanwhile, pitcher Todd Jones busied himself by talking to the catcher.

As soon as Terrero moved off third base, Lowell applied the tag and removed the tying run from scoring position. The Marlins eventually won, 10-5.

"I didn't ask Terrero what kind of shoes he was wearing or anything," said Lowell, who did the same move to then-Montreal's Brian Schneider last season. "He took a step off and I got him."

Quick hits

The Pittsburgh Pirates are again struggling as manager Lloyd McClendon's contract is set to expire. Pittsburgh holds a 2006 team option on him, though. ... New Chicago Cub Matt Lawton is having trouble playing left field in Wrigley. ... New York Mets infielder Kaz Matsui is back from the DL but has lost his job to Miguel Cairo.

League notebooks are compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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