SCOUTING REPORT: They may not be the Braves of the past decade, but they're still pretty good. (Just check the NL East standings.) And don't bet against them being back in the playoffs. Greg Maddux, who pitches Tuesday, continues to anchor an impressive staff, and few teams can keep up with the Joneses: elite centerfielder Andruw Jones and clutch third baseman Chipper Jones. The difference is the Braves, now part of the AOL business empire, don't have the funds to stock their bench and bullpen with star-quality performers. That's why rookie Mark DeRosa is playing shortstop in place of injured Rafael Furcal and first base is manned by the unlikely tandem of Ken Caminiti and Rico Brogna. And that's a big part of the reason John Rocker was traded.
THE PAST WEEK: The Braves closed the gap on the Phillies by going 14-4 and averaging 6.5 runs during that span. They won the first two games after the break before losing to the Orioles on Saturday, and so far they have survived the loss of Furcal and Rocker.
TAMPA BAY CONNECTIONS: Outfielder Dave Martinez was an original Ray, still seeking his first post-season appearance. Fred McGriff was a star on the Braves' 1993-97 clubs. Pitcher John Burkett was released out of spring training by the Rays in 2000; he was an NL All-Star for the Braves this season. Rays general manager Chuck LaMar and assistants Scott Proefrock and Bart Braun all worked for the Braves.
ALL-TIME SERIES: The Rays may model themselves after the Braves, but they have yet to come even close to them. Atlanta has won eight of the nine games, including the first seven, outscoring the Rays 63-31.
WHO'S HOT: DeRosa, the 26-year-old rookie, is on a 16-for-34 tear.
WHO'S NOT: Andruw Jones is always dangerous but has just seven hits in his past 38 at-bats.
_ MARC TOPKIN