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Braves need health, hurlers and home wins in second half

    ATLANTA — The Atlanta Braves already have made 2007 a year of milestones.
    Chipper Jones collected his 2,000th career hit and became Atlanta’s all-time home run leader, passing Dale Murphy. John Smoltz earned his 200th career win. Manager Bobby Cox matched the all-time record for ejections.
    Jones, Smoltz and Cox would prefer the focus turned to team goals for the second half of the season, with the object a return to the playoffs.
    The Braves (47-42) closed a 6-4 road trip with a 5-4 win at San Diego on Sunday night to enter the All-Star break only two games behind the first-place New York Mets in the NL East. Catcher Brian McCann will represent the Braves in Tuesday night’s All-Star game.
    One year ago, the Braves were only 40-49 at the break and they missed the playoffs in a non-strike season for the first time since 1990.
    Cox and his team must address several issues in the second half:
    — The Braves need to improve their play at Turner Field as they launch a 10-game homestand on Friday night against Pittsburgh.
    Atlanta is a solid 25-21 on the road but only 22-21 at home.
    Among the Atlanta hitters who have poor home batting averages: Andruw Jones, .181; Scott Thorman, .196; Kelly Johnson, .217, and Jeff Francoeur, .242 with only three homers.
    Even though the Braves were only 4-11 in interleague games — the worst mark among NL teams — Cox says he had enough hitters to match up with the powerful AL lineups.
    ‘‘When we had the DH going in those other parks, man, I liked our lineup,’’ Cox said. ‘‘I looked at our lineup, looked at theirs, I thought, hey, we match up pretty good here. ... Yeah, the hitting’s there, absolutely.’’
    — Smoltz must make a successful return from the disabled list. Also, Atlanta must have more consistent starts from the bottom of its rotation.
    Smoltz pulled out of the All-Star game and landed on the 15-day disabled list with inflammation in his right shoulder on Friday. The good news was the test showed a sound rotator cuff.
    Smoltz, 40, will be eligible to come off the DL on July 18. Smoltz, 9-5 with a 3.07 ERA, is still the undisputed ace of the staff. His return is crucial to the team’s hopes of catching the Mets or winning a wild-card spot.
    The loss of Smoltz puts pressure on Tim Hudson (8-5, 3.54) and Chuck James (8-7, 3.96) to keep the front end of the rotation strong while the Braves hope for more consistent results from Kyle Davies (4-7, 5.55) and Buddy Carlyle (3-2, 4.50). Rookie Jo-Jo Reyes, who gave up five runs in only three innings in his first start Saturday, will receive at least one more start before Smoltz comes off the DL.
    — The Braves, who suffered a key loss when set-up reliever Mike Gonzalez suffered a season-ending elbow injury in late May, need better road results from closer Bob Wickman.
    Wickman’s ERA climbed to 4.80 when he gave up three runs in the ninth on Sunday in San Diego. He is a perfect 8-for-8 in save situations at home, where he has not allowed an earned run in 12 2-3 innings, but he has blown 4 of 12 save chances on the road.
    Wickman has been more vulnerable, but even with the loss of Gonzalez the bullpen has been much better than in 2006. The Braves are 11-10 in one-run games, much better than their 12-21 mark at the All-Star break last season.
    — Finally, as general manager John Schuerholz considers his trade options, decisions must be made with versatile rookies Yunel Escobar, who can play third, second and shortstop, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who came up as a catcher but could move past Thorman as the starter at first base.
    Escobar has hit .304 in 102 at-bats. Saltalamacchia, a switch-hitter, is hitting .315 with four homers in 108 at-bats. The rookies’ strong play could prove valuable on the trade market, or their showings could help make it possible for Schuerholz to deal another highly regarded minor league player.

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