ATLANTA -- John Rocker couldn't resist the opportunity to have a little fun. After all, how many times this decade has the Braves' bullpen been considered an asset rather than a liability?
"Basically, we know we're the backbone of this team," said the Atlanta closer, doing his best to restrain a smile. "We're the only thing keeping us in the pennant race."Though kidding, Rocker wasn't too far off in his assessment. This nondescript group, which had combined for just 15 major-league saves prior to this season, has kept the Braves among baseball's elite teams.
Going into a weekend series at New York, the bullpen was 13-6 with a 3.35 ERA, while the five-man starting rotation was 31-22 and 4.17.
"I'm real happy with the job we're doing," said Rocker, who had 15 saves and a 1.87 ERA. "We don't really talk about it, but there's a sense of pride and obligation to the team."
Many things have gone wrong for the Braves, beginning in spring training when slugger Andres Galarraga was diagnosed with cancer and closer Kerry Ligtenberg suffered a season-ending elbow injury.
Ex-closer Mark Wohlers was traded to Cincinnati. Leadoff hitter Otis Nixon was benched when his average dipped below .200. Walt Weiss and Javy Lopez wound up on the disabled list.
Most troubling, Cy Young winners Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux both struggled with ERAs above 4.00. Suddenly, the Braves' vaunted rotation doesn't look all that imposing anymore.
Led by Rocker, the self-titled "Braves Grunts" -- their collective salaries don't come to half of what Glavine, Maddux and John Smoltz are making individually -- filled the void.
Rocker, a starter through most of his years in the minors, found his niche when he was converted to the bullpen. He enters the game with the mentality of a linebacker, intent on sacking the hitter with a fastball clocked in the upper 90s.
"When I was starting, I couldn't focus long enough," said Rocker, who had 48 strikeouts in 33 2-3 innings. "When you're closing, you're only going to be in there for five or 10 minutes. Anybody can concentrate for five or 10 minutes."
Journeymen Rudy Seanez (4-0, 2.16) and Mike Remlinger (2-1, 1.57) and rookie Kevin McGlinchey (4-2, 2.68) are setting things up for Rocker.
"Our bullpen has taken a lot of flak all the years I've been here," said Chipper Jones, who joined the Braves in 1995. "But this group has taken it upon themselves to turn that trend around."
SCORING and SPARKY: Through games of Thursday, teams were averaging 5.14 runs and 1.15 homers per games, up from 4.77 runs and 1.04 homers last year.
"Everybody says the ball is flying," said Sparky Anderson, the former manager of the Cincinnati Reds and the Detroit Tigers. "I talked to a pitching coach the other day, golfing. He said this ball is flying."
What does he suggest as a solution to get offense and pitching back in balance?
"They could help them by moving that mound back to 15 inches," Anderson. "When you're throwing from a mountaintop down, you have better angles."
The mound was lowered to 10 inches after the 1968 season, when pitchers dominated and offense plummeted. Before that, pitchers threw from real hills.
"Most of us, including me, cheated and ran it to 17, 18 inches at times," Anderson said.
On another topic, Anderson was particularly impressed by shortstops Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter.
"I can't hardly remember -- and I was only in baseball for 44 years, but I am positive the old guys would back me up -- I can never remember when three guys were in the major leagues like that," he said. "These three are dynamic players."
PUT UP TIME IN CINCINNATI: By the All-Star break, the Reds will know whether they're trying to make the playoffs or looking to make some deals.
Managing executive John Allen plans to meet with general manager Jim Bowden no later than the three-day break for the July 13 All-Star game to decide on a direction for the rest of the season.
"I'm sure by that time we'll have a better feel for what the needs of other teams are and vice-versa," Allen said Tuesday.
The Reds went over budget to acquire Greg Vaughn from San Diego before the season, pushing the payroll to $33 million. Bowden warned at the time that they could afford to keep him for an entire season only if attendance increased and the club stayed in contention.
A 9-3 road trip -- the Reds' best in 18 years -- put them in contention in the NL Central this month. After 36 home games, attendance is up 27,807 from last season.
"That's a positive and our advance ticket sales for the rest of the year look pretty good," Allen said. "But all of those things we'll revisit."
Two things are certain: The pending change in ownership won't affect the Reds' finances short term, and the club won't deviate from rebuilding for a new ballpark in 2003.
Bowden would like to obtain another starting pitcher for a run at the playoffs this season, but the Reds won't give up prospects for one.
"Our overall direction has not changed and will not change," Allen said.