Notes: Furcal coming around

Notes: Furcal coming around

MIAMI -- While the Braves continue to win amid adversity, it's often pointed out that they're staying in the race without Chipper Jones and three of their starting pitchers. Often forgotten is that they've also persevered without a productive leadoff hitter.

But over the last week, Rafael Furcal has shown some signs of life and sparked the Braves' offense in the manner that a leadoff hitter should. In five of the previous seven games entering Wednesday night, he had reached safely in his first at-bat, and he scored in each of those instances.

Without surprise, the red-hot Braves won each of those games.

"It's hard not to score when he gets on," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He can steal a base at any time and he's got good hitters behind him now."

Furcal's problem during much of the early season was that he was providing basically nothing at the top of the lineup. Even with his recent production, his .285 on-base-percentage ranks as the National League's fourth worst. As for his .232 batting average, it's the NL's third worst.

Ironically, Furcal has managed to keep himself in the lineup because of his defense. His six errors match Wilson Betemit for the team high and put him on pace to commit just 13 this year. Considering he's averaged 27 errors over the previous three seasons, he's at least shown improvement in one department.

But Furcal's greatest contribution could be to continue the recent contributions he's provided. In those seven previous games before Wednesday, he had batted .330 and reached base at a .394 clip.

Furcal leads the National League with 27 stolen bases and has been caught just four times. When he gets on base, opposing pitchers are more apt to throw fastballs, which, in turn, benefits Kelly Johnson and Marcus Giles, the two Braves who follow him in the batting order.

Thus it's not too surprising during this same seven-game stretch that Giles has batted .333 and Johnson .345. Of course, following them in the lineup is Andruw Jones, whose .478 batting average during that stretch only adds to the power dominance he's shown over the past two weeks.

"When [Furcal] is on, he's hot and it makes our team go," Cox said.

Johnson gives it a go: Johnson awoke on Wednesday morning battling a high fever and congestion. But when he got to the park, he began feeling a little better and decided to play and attempt to continue his recent success.

Since beginning his career with just one hits in his first 30 at-bats, the 23-year-old left fielder has batted .375 (21-for-56) and gained a fan in Cox, who believes Johnson's first-inning RBI triple against Dontrelle Willis was the biggest hit in Tuesday night's victory.

"I've seen Kelly for a couple of years and I've always liked him," Cox said. "I love the way he sets up. I think he looks a lot like [John] Olerud, just with a slightly wider stance."

AJ spraying them everywhere: Jones had hit 12 homers in his previous 17 games, entering Wednesday. While very impressive, that surge, which gave him a Major League-leading 24 homers, might not have impressed Cox as much as the fact that his Gold Glove outfielder has been going the opposite way recently.

In the first two games of this week's series against the Marlins, Jones recorded three hits that went into right field. Looking at his spray chart, just four of the 41 hits he's recorded at Turner Field this year have gone right of center and none of them to the right of right-center field.

"He didn't just flip those out there," Cox said. "He hit those nice. That shows you how disciplined he is right now."

Pitching update: If Tim Hudson is going to throw a simulated game, it would likely come next week in Atlanta. Wanting to give his strained left oblique more time to rest, the Braves are leaning toward holding Hudson out until after the All-Star break.

There is hope that Mike Hampton, who is still fighting some tightness in his left forearm, will also return during that same period. As for John Thomson, his right middle finger, which he injured on May 16, didn't bother him while throwing on Monday and Tuesday. He's also hoping to be back in the starting rotation by late July.

Braves bits: Jones entered Wednesday needing just two more hits to pass Hank Aaron and move into third place on the all-time Atlanta Braves' hit list. ... John Smoltz, who will start on Friday, needs seven more strikeouts to pass Warren Spahn and move into second place on the franchise's all-time list. He needs 15 more strikeouts to pass Christy Mathewson and move into sole possession of 26th place on Major League Baseball's all-time list.

Coming up: Roman Colon will make his second career start and likely oppose Josh Beckett in the finale of a four-game set against the Marlins on Thursday night. If Beckett isn't activated from the disabled list, the Marlins will start Scott Olsen, who also would be making his second career start.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.