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Braves start a new kind of streak

    ATLANTA — Jeff Francoeur hurriedly cleaned out his locker at Turner Field, tossing some stuff into a cardboard box, the rest into a nearby trash can. The Braves outfielder was eager to put a wrap on another playoff-less season and get to the golf course.
    Maybe he’ll feel better after taking a few whacks at that other white ball.
    ‘‘This is by far more frustrating than last year,’’ Francoeur said. ‘‘We felt like we had the guys this year to make a run.’’
    Instead, Chipper Jones and the Braves have a new streak going.
    The team that set the standard for regular-season excellence by winning 14 straight division titles finds itself sitting at home for the second year in a row. While Atlanta did manage a winning record (84-78), that was only good enough for the same spot as last season: third place in the NL East.
    The Braves were eliminated in the final week and finished five games behind division champ Philadelphia.
    ‘‘It could have been a different season,’’ said Andruw Jones, who endured one of his worst years. ‘‘But we can’t make excuses about what we didn’t do and what we should have done and all that.’’
    In a way, this hurt more than 2006, when Atlanta fell out of contention before the All-Star break and never came close to winning another NL East crown.
    The Braves were just 31⁄2 games back when they acquired slugger Mark Teixeira at the trade deadline. But they were just one game over .500 the rest of the way, their hopes dashed when they were swept at home by the New York Mets with a month to go.
    A potent offense, solid bullpen and dominant 1-2 punch at the top of the pitching rotation were overshadowed by one glaring weakness: A lack of effective starters beyond John Smoltz (14-8) and Tim Hudson (16-10).
    The Braves had hoped for the return of Mike Hampton, but he spent his second straight season on the disabled list. Chuck James struggled to last more than five innings, and the rest of the rotation was a hodgepodge of journeymen and in-over-their-head rookies.
    At age 40, Smoltz isn’t slowing down at all. He nearly pitched his first career no-hitter in early September and had his ERA in the 2s until a rough outing in his final start left him at 3.11.
    Hudson rediscovered the form that made him one of the AL’s top starters during his days in Oakland. He shaved more than 11⁄2 runs off his ERA (going from a career-worst 4.86 in 2006 to 3.33) and teamed with Smoltz to give the Braves a good shot at winning at least two out of every five days.
    The bullpen was better than expected, considering Mike Gonzalez was lost to season-ending elbow injury and closer Bob Wickman was released in late August after a stretch of blown saves.
    Hard-throwing Rafael Soriano (nine saves, 3.00 ERA) finished up as the closer and will likely keep that role in 2008.
    ‘‘It would be nice to have depth,’’ manager Bobby Cox said Monday. ‘‘You never get enough pitching. When you think you do, go out and get more.’’
    The Braves didn’t have any trouble scoring. They finished fourth in the league in hitting (.275) and third in runs (5.0 per game), numbers that would have been even higher if not for Andruw Jones’ alarming slide in the final year of a $75 million contract.
    Two years removed from a 51-homer season, he slumped to .222 — his worst average since becoming a full-time starter in 1997 — with 26 homers and 94 RBIs.
    While Jones would like to stay with the only team he’s ever played for, the Braves never talked contract during the season. The trade for Teixeira, who won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2008 season, likely doomed any hopes of Jones returning under the current budget.
    ‘‘It’s kind of bittersweet,’’ Francoeur said. ‘‘Hopefully, it doesn’t come to that. But if it does, that’s part of the game.’’
    The other big question facing the Braves: How much longer will Cox stay on as manager?
    The 66-year-old Hall of Famer-to-be hinted in spring training that he might step down after the 2008 season. He’s yet to make a final decision, but has considered the pros and cons.
    Without baseball, he quipped, ‘‘I’d probably commit suicide.’’ On the other hand, ‘‘It might be nice to wake up and every day is Saturday.’’
    Cox hasn’t lost any of his feistiness, that’s for sure. He passed John McGraw for the most ejections in baseball history.
    With Teixeira in the lineup for a full year, the Braves figures to keep scoring plenty of runs.
    Chipper Jones hit .337 and teammate Edgar Renteria was fourth at .332. Teixeira batted .317 with 17 homers and 56 RBIs after joining the Braves for the final two months, plugging a big hole at first base. Francoeur reached 100 RBIs for the second year in a row, while Matt Diaz and rookie Yunel Escobar both batted better than .300 in part-time roles.
    Of course, the loss of Andruw Jones, who’s expected to win his 10th straight Gold Glove, would leave a huge hole defensively in center field. But the Braves could use some of his $13.5 million salary to bulk up the pitching and still find a decent replacement in center, such as Atlanta resident Mike Cameron.
    Otherwise, it’s probably going to be a rather quiet offseason.
    ‘‘We feel like we’ve got all that we need in this clubhouse,’’ general manager John Schuerholz said.
    On the bright side, the Braves’ streak of division titles is safe. The New York Yankees failed to win the AL East for the first time since 1997, coming up five short of Atlanta’s record.
    Then again, the Yankees did make the playoffs as a wild-card team.
    The Braves are sitting home.
    Again.

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