Just over one month into the season, certain teams are trying to separate themselves from the pack. The Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers are among that group.
A pair of first-place teams will be on display Friday night in the opener of a three-game series at Turner Field as the Braves and Dodgers meet for the first time this season.After failing to win their 15th straight division title last season, the Braves (17-10) appear to be hungry for another trip to the playoffs. They lead the NL East and only Milwaukee has a better record in the league."You can't complain about the results up to this point and you can't complain with effort," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones told the team's official Web site.Atlanta is five games ahead of last season's pace when it was 12-15 after 27 games.The Dodgers (17-11) opened with 13 wins in their first 18 games before losing six of their next 10. Still, they lead the NL West and also are five games ahead of their 2006 pace."I'm pleased with where we are after one month, especially with some of the situations that we've gone through with some hitters struggling and some pitchers on the disabled list," manager Grady Little said. "But I feel good about where we are, and I know we're going to get better as the year goes on."Atlanta held on for a 4-3 victory over visiting Philadelphia on Wednesday, as four relievers combined on four scoreless innings and Jones continued his red-hot hitting with a two-run double to lead the Braves to their fourth win in six games.Jones, plagued by injuries the last three seasons, is batting .353 (18-for-51) with six homers during a 12-game hitting streak. He's had at least one hit in 24 of 27 games and leads the NL with 10 homers.Mike Gonzalez struck out two in the eighth inning Wednesday and Rafael Soriano earned his second save with a scoreless ninth in place of injured closer Bob Wickman.Last season, the Braves blew more saves than any NL team. This year, though, they have three capable closers in Gonzalez, Soriano and Wickman."I know that last year the bullpen was a problem," Soriano said. "That was one of the reasons they made the trades to get me and Gonzalez. Now, they feel comfortable with the guys they have in there."With their top two catchers injured, the Braves were forced to call up top prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia from Double-A. He went 0-for-2 and was hit by a pitch in his major league debut.Starting catcher Brian McCann sat out after he was hit on the left hand by a swinging bat Tuesday. McCann, who won his first Silver Slugger Award last year, hopes to return to the lineup for this game, but manager Bobby Cox has indicated that he may rest him until Saturday."It's definitely not fun to squeeze a bat," said McCann, who is batting .298 with two homers and 14 RBIs. "Hopefully it will heal in the next couple of days."John Smoltz (3-1, 3.96 ERA) takes the mound for the Braves Friday following an extra day of rest. The veteran right-hander pitched well in a 6-2 win Saturday at Colorado, limiting the Rockies to two runs on a first-inning homer and nine hits over seven innings with a walk and a season-high eight strikeouts.Smoltz was roughed up for five runs and nine hits in five innings on April 4, 2006, in his only start against the Dodgers last season. He is 15-13 with a 3.00 ERA in 34 career starts against Los Angeles.The Dodgers are coming off back-to-back 2-1 victories over Arizona, and each of their last four wins have been by one run.Brett Tomko (0-2, 3.75) seeks his first win of the season and his first career victory at Turner Field. He has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his four starts this season.The right-hander pitched in relief for the first time this season Monday against Arizona and gave up two runs and three hits in two-thirds of an inning. He is 2-3 with a 7.32 ERA in six career starts against the Braves, including an 0-3 mark and a 9.15 ERA in four starts at Atlanta.