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Seems like old times: Braves lead division
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ATLANTA - Brian McCann grew up cheering for Glavine and McGriff, Maddux and Justice, guys who expected to make the playoffs year after year after year.

The Braves catcher is starting to get that feeling himself.

Atlanta has reclaimed a once-familiar position, first place in the NL East for going on two months now. Even after losing two of three at Florida over the weekend (just their second series loss since early May), the Braves enjoyed a day off Monday with a 4½-game lead over Philadelphia, the league's two-time reigning champs.

"I was a huge baseball fan growing up. This was the team I rooted for," said McCann, a five-time All-Star and native of suburban Atlanta. "I definitely think the team we have here now is how they played in the '90s."

The formula sure sounds similar: Stingy pitching, solid defense, opportunistic hitting, that familiar face running it all from the dugout.

Yes, even Bobby Cox is starting to get that feeling again, too.

"It's great chemistry right now," said Cox, who has more wins (2,465) than all but three other managers in major league history. "They're all pulling together."

This is the final season for the 69-year-old Cox, but don't even attempt to pry out of him the meaning of his impending retirement - he's more likely to agree to a root canal than talk about anything more than the next game. Yet the players seem intent on providing their beloved skipper with more than a rocking chair for his going-away present.

"Bobby Cox is the reason the Braves have had so much success," McCann said. "He's treating it like just another season, but we want to make it special for him."

In many ways, this is an appropriate team for Cox to go out on. It looks a lot like that group he had way back in 1991, the year the Braves went from worst to the first of their unprecedented 14 straight division titles.

Instead of Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in their early years, these Braves have a deep rotation with treasured 20-somethings such as Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson. Just as they did with Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream, they went out and got valued veterans Troy Glaus and Eric Hinske on the cheap during the offseason. There's a star in the making out in right field, only it's Jason Heyward instead of David Justice.

Throw in a versatile bullpen led by comeback closer Billy Wagner and the unexpected turn of second baseman Martin Prado from utilityman to all-star, and you've got the makings of something special.

But for all those individual bright spots, this season has been more about the collective effort, about that chemistry Cox referred to. Aging slugger Chipper Jones is a shell of his former self. Nate McLouth went from leadoff to total write-off. Yunel Escobar had nary a homer when he was dealt away for Alex Gonzalez.

To overcome, the Braves needed that elusive, unmeasurable trait all teams strive for but no one knows they have for sure until, well, they have it.

"We all enjoy hanging out," Jones said. "In the past, a clique may have consisted of three or four guys. You'd have seven or eight cliques on the team. But I've been to many dinners already this season where we've gotten into a town on road and there's been 15, 18, even 20 guys all eating together."

Maybe Cox's last season is the uniting force. Maybe they all just like each other. Even at home, the players seem to arrive earlier for games, hang out longer when they're done.

"That something that never happened before. There was always a beeline to get the hell out of here," Jones said. "It's a different mentality, and it's paying off when we take it down into the dugout with everybody feeling good about everybody else."

No one felt good at the start. A nine-game losing streak in April left the Braves in last place and doubting whether they really had the right mix to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

"We felt like we had a good team coming out of spring," Hudson said. "But we came out of the box slow and we're kind of scratching our heads like, 'Are we a good team or a bad team?'"

The hitting picked up, at least at the right times, and so did the winning. Since the beginning of May, the Braves are 48-27. Even more impressive: they have lost just two of their last 22 series, winning 16 and splitting four others.

There's still more than two months left in the season, far too early to break out the champagne. The Phillies have been plagued by injuries but know a thing or two about winning. The Mets and the Marlins aren't out of it yet, either.

But the Braves are starting to feel like it's the '90s all over again.

"I don't want to get ahead of ourselves," McCann said, "but the feeling is definitely there. Everyone expects to win every single night, and that's a different feeling than we've had the last three or four years."

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