ATLANTA -- Eager to avoid another first-round exit, the Atlanta Braves come into the playoffs with all sorts of worries.
John Smoltz's shoulder has been ailing, so he'll apparently start Game 2 of the Division Series against the Houston Astros instead of tomorrow's opener at Turner Field.
That's not all. MVP candidate Andruw Jones and celebrated rookie Jeff Francoeur are mired in slumps. Another rookie, Blaine Boyer, may be left off the postseason roster because of a sore shoulder -- a major blow to the shaky bullpen.
The Braves' problems have been reflected in their play. They are barely above .500 (29-28) since the beginning of August and closed the regular season with a four-game losing streak and only seven wins in their last 19 games.
The last four losses can be somewhat excused, coming after the team clinched its 14th straight NL East title. Manager Bobby Cox used those meaningless games to audition youngsters and little-used players who might help on the fringe of the postseason roster.
Still, Atlanta is hardly on a roll going into the playoffs.
''We need to step it up another notch before [tomorrow]," second baseman Marcus Giles said. ''It seems like we've been sitting around on our heels the past few weeks playing not to get hurt. When you do that, you wind up playing not to win, and we have to clean that up before our first playoff game."
The Braves have lost in the first round the last three years -- all with Game 5 defeats at home. Since making its last World Series in 1999, Atlanta has gotten past the Division Series only once in five tries.
Smoltz (14-7) is a major concern this time around. His shoulder began hurting late in the year, reflecting the wear and tear of a team-high 229 2/3 innings. The Braves shut him down for the final nine days of the regular season, hoping the pain would go away with rest.
While the righthander felt better during a bullpen session Sunday, the Braves can't afford to take any chances. Cox will likely use Tim Hudson (14-9) against Andy Pettitte in Game 1, apparently believing Hudson is better suited to come back on three days' rest if the best-of-five series goes to a fourth game Sunday.
The decision sets up an intriguing matchup for Game 2 -- Smoltz vs. Roger Clemens.
Smoltz left Florida after the regular-season finale believing he would be the Game 1 starter, but was told by Cox after the team landed in Atlanta that Hudson would go instead.
''We obviously know who they have in their rotation, so it's important that we get an early lead and build some kind of momentum," Smoltz said. ''It should be an exciting series, but I don't foresee a lot of runs being scored."