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Despite swoon, Braves still in it

    ATLANTA — This sounds familiar.
    The Atlanta Braves have hobbled through the month of June, struggling to cope with injuries to several key players, a patched-together rotation and a horrendous slump by one of the team’s top sluggers.
    But there’s one big change from a year ago. This time around, the June swoon hasn’t knocked the Braves out of the NL East race. In fact, they’re actually closer to first than they were at the beginning of the month, trailing the New York Mets by only 11⁄2 games as the summer heats up.
    ‘‘We definitely feel fortunate to be where we are,’’ said pitcher Tim Hudson, who’s lost four of his last five decisions. ‘‘We’ve been playing bad, but somehow we’ve gained a few games in the standings.’’
    In 2006, New York ran off with the NL East championship, snapping Atlanta’s record streak of 14 straight division titles. But the Mets have failed to pull away this season, managing to win only four of 18 games in June.
    That has allowed the Braves, who are 8-12 for the month and coming off two dismal losses to the Boston Red Sox, to actually knock three games off the 4 1/2-game deficit they faced at the start of the month.
    ‘‘We’re stuck in a little rut,’’ outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. ‘‘We’ve got to get through June, get a couple of games back and we’ll be OK.’’
    Actually, the Braves must over overcome several big hurdles to reclaim their once taken-for-granted spot in the postseason.
    The starting rotation is shaky beyond Hudson and the ageless John Smoltz, while the bullpen’s impressive depth took a huge blow last month when hard-throwing lefty Mike Gonzalez went down with a season-ending elbow injury.
    Chipper Jones — THE key guy in the lineup — has battled injuries for the fourth year in a row, the latest a groin problem that forced him out of the Wednesday night’s 11-0 loss to the Red Sox. The Braves aren’t sure how bad this latest problem is, but manager Bobby Cox said ominously, ‘‘It was hurting.’’
    ‘‘I know that my absence is a big part of it because you’ve got a lot of guys that are hitting out of position,’’ Jones, who has played just 50 of 73 games, said before his latest setback. ‘‘When I’m in there, everything stabilizes. Everybody’s got their spots. Everyone knows where they’re going to hit, and everybody gets comfortable.’’
    The trickle-down effect is noticeable. Brian McCann has tailed off a bit after an impressive debut year as the starting catcher, but no one has struggled as much as Andruw Jones. The nine-time Gold Glove outfielder, who had 92 homers and 257 RBIs over the last two seasons, is mired in an 0-for-18 skid that sent his average plummeting to a measly .202. He sat out Wednesday’s game, in hopes that a two-day break — the Braves were off Thursday — would clear his head and help him get back on track.
    ‘‘We want to be playing better, there’s no doubt about that,’’ Andruw Jones said. ‘‘But we’re still in second place. Everyone is fine with that. We still have a good chance to win our division.’’
    Division titles used to be a given in these parts. The Braves went from worst-to-first in 1991 and kept right on winning, even as the roster underwent several overhauls — Smoltz is the only holdover from that first championship team — and coped with a tightened budget and change in ownership.
    But it all came to a crashing halt in 2006, largely because of one hideous month. The Braves went 6-21 in June, dropping nine games in the standings to the Mets and ruining any hope of another NL East championship.
    Atlanta actually played seven games over .500 the rest of the way, but it wasn’t enough to overcome that terrible June. The Braves finished third at 79-83, 18 games behind the Mets.
    ‘‘If we had just played .500 ball that month, we could have won the wild card,’’ Hudson said, shaking his head.
    With that memory still fresh in their minds, the Braves want to break this fall as quickly as possible. But they are coming off back-to-back shutouts — the first time that’s happened since 2003 — and head into a weekend series against the defending AL champion Detroit Tigers, the latest in a brutal stretch of interleague games.
    Beginning next week, the Braves return to a more familiar NL schedule. The last-place Washington Nationals visit Turner Field for a three-game series, which will be followed by a 10-game road swing to Florida, Los Angeles and San Diego that matches the longest trip of the season and takes Atlanta up to the All-Star break.
    At that point, the team should have a pretty good idea where it stands going into the second half. And June, gratefully, will be over.
    ‘‘We’ve got to get through this stretch, because we knew the Mets are going to play a lot better,’’ Hudson said. ‘‘You can’t play under .500 and expect to gain ground. We’re definitely lucky to be where we are.’’

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